Column: Here’s what lawmakers must do to help people amid the coronavirus pandemic

Susan J. Demas graphic

Now that it has officially landed in Michigan, COVID-19 is a potential threat to all residents. 

Unfortunately, both the risks of the disease itself and its economic repercussions will adversely affect Michigan residents with lower incomes — the very people my colleagues and I at the nonpartisan Michigan League for Public Policy (MLPP) are charged with fighting for. 

With that in mind, we want to bring to light some of these particular challenges — and offer up some public policy solutions — to reduce coronavirus’ impact on workers and families with lower incomes, and in turn, reduce its impact on our state as a whole.

Access to health care

As with any other health risk, access to health care is an important factor in combating coronavirus. Early testing and treatment are key, and that’s much easier when there’s not a cost associated with it. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer moved to waive copays and other shared costs with coronavirus-related health visits, and several large insurers in the state followed suit. 

However, work requirements for Healthy Michigan, Michigan’s Medicaid plan, also continue to be debated, despite the backdrop of a pandemic. On March 4, a federal court struck down Michigan’s work requirements for Healthy Michigan enrollees, saving tens of thousands of people from losing their health care inadvertently. 

GOP wants feds to reinstate Medicaid work rules, even as coronavirus hits Michigan

But just this week, the Michigan Legislature passed House Concurrent Resolution 17 urging the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services to defend the Healthy Michigan Plan work requirements. 

Even though the resolution is neither binding nor substantive, we still noted in our written testimony opposing it that “our federal and state governments should be focused on reassuring constituents that efforts to protect public health are top priority, not pursuing a path known to jeopardize individuals’ access to quality health care” in the wake of coronavirus.

Access to paid sick leave

Paid sick leave is another highly relevant policy, as one of the biggest recommendations from federal and state officials on curbing the coronavirus spread is to stay home if you’re sick. 

But that’s much easier said than done when you don’t have paid sick leave. Paid sick leave is a particularly raw nerve for the MLPP, our partners and the huge swath of Michigan residents that worked to get a paid sick leave proposal on the November 2018 ballot, only to see it “adopted and amended” — and largely diluted — during the Michigan Legislature’s Lame Duck session.

Those changes left about 1.5 million workers in Michigan without access to paid sick leave, something state Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy) is seeking to help remedy with her introduction of House Bill 5628 this week. 

As many of us move to “working remotely,” that’s not really plausible for workers in the service or retail industry, custodial and maintenance workers, and manufacturing and labor. 

And for the almost one-third of Michigan workers without paid sick leave, they’re forced to make an impossible choice between taking every precaution for their and others’ health and staying home or making a living and putting food on their table.

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Access to assistance programs

As we switch our thinking from the public health impact of coronavirus to the economic impact, this is something the MLPP is working hard to emphasize now: the longer-term individual and statewide economic challenges that the coronavirus could bring. 

With potential layoffs and an economic downturn related to coronavirus, Michigan needs to shore up its assistance programs to better support workers. 

The state thankfully already increased its asset limit on public assistance programs, which will help. 

With more workers likely to end up unemployed as the travel industry suffers and large employers like big corporations and universities move to working remotely, Michigan also should revisit the maximum length of its Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits, restoring it to 26 weeks. It was cut to 20 weeks in 2011. 

The state could also peg the maximum unemployment benefit to the average weekly wage, increase the dependents’ allowance and expand UI eligibility for workers seeking part-time work or who are pursuing skills training rather than immediate employment.

At the federal level, the negative changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) work requirements for Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents workers go into effect very soon, and people could lose access to vital food assistance if their employers close. 

New: Whitmer, DHHS announce plan to ease access to public assistance

Halting evictions, helping kids on free, reduced lunch

To better support residents during the coronavirus outbreak, Michigan lawmakers could also consider protective measures like passing a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs. 

The statewide K-12 school closings Whitmer announced Thursday night will impact the free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch programs that more than half the kids in the state utilize, and also raises questions about computer and internet access for kids and families. School closings also put a strain on working parents and their potential child care needs. There are also concerns about the impact of longer-term school and university closings on the school year and students’ academic progress.

While coronavirus is a danger to our state and its residents on many fronts, there are ways policymakers can help their constituents cope with it. And it does present an opportunity to revisit our public policies and whether they are serving the public as best they can every day, but especially in times of crisis.