‘If and when can we go back to work’: Laid-off workers worry what happens after COVID-19 crisis

Susan J. Demas

When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer closed bars, restaurants and other businesses on March 16 to slow the spread of COVID-19, it meant that some people lost their Friday night date plans or their St. Patrick Day celebrations came to a halt. 

But for thousands of Michiganders, these closures were much more dire. For those working in the service sector, this emergency measure meant layoffs and an end to their income. 

“We are just at the opening stages of the crisis in terms of its financial impact,” said State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City), who chairs the Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus. “In the United States of America, the startup costs of having a middle-class life are so high that it’s difficult for poor and working people to enter the middle class. And right now, whatever savings, whatever nest egg poor and working people have will be gone by the fall.”

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Michigan became the ninth state to issue a statewide stay-at-home order on March 24, which put a stop to all non-essential business across the state, and specified only businesses deemed “necessary to sustain or protect life” were able to meet in-person. 

A Chicago-based physicians’ group, the Committee to Protect Medicare (CTP), asked President Trump to issue a similar order nationwide, but he has yet to do so.

“The growing consensus among doctors, frontline medical professionals and public health experts agrees that we have come to the point where COVID-19 will continue its rapid spread, overwhelm hospitals and put lives at risk, including those needing care not related to COVID-19, unless we enforce social distancing by keeping people in their homes,” said CTP Executive Director, Dr. Rob Davidson, an emergency physician in West Michigan who ran for Congress as a Democrat in 2018.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading U.S. government infectious disease expert, also said there needs to be a national directive to social distance and was critical of the president’s hesitation to do so. 

“As you said, you know, the tension between ‘federal mandated’ versus ‘states rights’ to do what they want is something that I don’t want to get into,” Fauci told CNN last week. “But if you look at what’s going on in this country, I just don’t understand why we’re not doing that. We really should be.”

In Michigan, COVID-19 spread quickly. 

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The governor announced a state of emergency on March 10, the day the first two cases were reported. Since then, the state had had more than 21,000 cases and more than 1,000 deaths, making it the third-most infected state in the country. 

Most states have put in similar statewide stay-at-home orders, except Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Arkansas. 

On Thursday, the governor extended the statewide stay-at-home from April 13 to April 30 to continue social distancing efforts and slow the spread of COVID-19. 

“It’s clear that staying home is the most effective way we can slow the spread of COVID-19 in Michigan,” said Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Chief Deputy for Health and Chief Medical Executive Dr. Joneigh Khaldun. “This aggressive action will help us protect more people and ease the strain on our health care system.” 

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Skyrocketing unemployment

Health experts agree that social distancing is the best weapon currently available to fight COVID-19, but it means that many people are out of work for at least a few more weeks. 

From March 15 through April 4, 817,585 Michigan workers filed initial unemployment claims, according to the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA).

Trump signed the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act in March, which allocated $600 a week to unemployed people. Whitmer, through an agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor, implemented the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Compensation programs, to expand eligibility to workers who are self-employed, 1099-independent contractors, gig and low-wage workers. 

The agreement also extends the benefit payment period from 26 to 39 weeks.

Still, hundreds of thousands of laid-off Michiganders are wondering how to make ends meet. Brittney Burtrand, a massage therapist from Oakland County, said it was “terrifying” when the spa she works for closed and she was laid off. 

“As a massage therapist, I’m on the frontlines of touching people all day, so we were one of the first ones to be shut down,” Burtrand said. 

She was able to file for unemployment, but said she filed in the middle of the night to avoid the rush of other people overwhelming the system. With the unemployment offices and Michigan Works offices closed for in-person appointments, the UIA saw an unprecedented 5,000% increase of laid off workers filing for unemployment online. 

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UI system overwhelmed

But not all workers have been so lucky.

On March 31, the UIA online system crashed for more than an hour from an overload of unemployed workers attempting to file their claims. Many people have reported issues of long wait times, slow systems and being kicked out of the system altogether, making it almost impossible to file for unemployment. 

Whitmer says the site has been “underfunded and under-supported for many years,” and wasn’t prepared to take this big of a hit all at once. 

“You don’t have a system built around the potential pandemic and 40% unemployment, so it’s not surprising that the system has crashed,” said Elder. 

To help ease the burden on the agency’s system, people are being asked to file for unemployment through a scheduling system based on the applicant’s last name. 

Applicants with last names beginning with A-L are advised to apply Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Applications with last names beginning with M-Z are advised to apply Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. 

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In addition to a filing schedule, the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) implemented new online tools to help those experiencing technical difficulties with the MILogin and Michigan Web Account Manager (MiWAM) report and resolve the issues. MILogin is the state’s portal to access state services and MiWAM acts as the UIA’s system for filing your unemployment insurance claim and managing UIA accounts.

“We’ve built online prompts and other resources into the systems to help unemployed workers resolve technical issues when trying to login to submit their claim,” said LEO Director Jeff Donofrio. “While we estimate that around 95% of claimants have accessed our systems without any problems, we do understand some individuals have had technical difficulties. These tools are developed to connect users to our tech team who will contact claimants directly to resolve issues such as incorrect passwords, locked accounts or errors with authentication codes.” 

Within a week, the department is expecting to have around 100 full-time employees from the UIA and the Department of Technology, Management and Budget working on fixing the technical issues. Anyone who previously experienced technical problems that are not yet resolved are encouraged to go back into the system to report the issue.

Another vexing issue many Michiganders report is that the UI system hasn’t kept up with changes of who’s eligible for benefits. Self-employed workers, low-income workers, gig workers and 1099-independent contractors have said they have been rejected, even though they’ve been included for benefits under the CARES Act.

Self-employed, gig workers can claim unemployment benefits 

“Hesitated to do this, but has become urgent,” Adrian Hemond, owner of the bipartisan political firm Grassroots Midwest, wrote on Facebook this week. “When the CARES Act was passed it included allowing self-employed people to file for unemployment benefits. They still cannot do so in Michigan. No state website says so much as when such folks will be able to do so.

“For many folks whose businesses were shut down prior to Stay Home/Stay Safe, the 28 day window to apply is rapidly disappearing. So on behalf of the thousands of self employed folks in mid-Michigan (I am not one), can y’all figure this out for us? When will self-employed people be able to file for unemployment in Michigan? People are getting desperate. Not slamming anyone. … Your hairdresser, massage therapist, barber, videographer, and many, many other self employed people thank you in advance.”

On Friday, LEO said these workers will now be able to apply online here for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) beginning at 8 a.m. Monday. The department said those who have previously applied for unemployment benefits and were denied should login to their MiWAM account to complete the next steps for PUA federal benefits, which also will be emailed to workers. They are advised not to file a new claim, as that may delay the time it takes to get their benefits.

“We’re committed to making sure everyone who is eligible for unemployment assistance receives their benefits as quickly as possible,” Donofrio said.

The governor’s on the line

“It’s just a very clear necessity that we need more help in terms of answering the phones and helping to process claims,” Whitmer told reporters on a call Tuesday.

So to help out, the governor plans on answering phone calls herself — from home — and processing claims this week. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gives an update on COVID-19 | Gov. Whitmer office photo

But Whitmer isn’t the only one jumping in to help handle the mass of unemployment claims. 

The UIA is taking on hundreds of new employees dedicated to the call center. Under normal circumstances, the agency typically staffs around 130 employees, but by the end of this week they are expecting about 500. 

In addition to boosting manpower, the UIA is extending call center hours by an hour every day 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, and remains open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. 

“We are committed to everyone who is eligible for an unemployment benefit, either previously or through the new CARES Act to make sure they get every dollar that they are eligible for,” said Donofrio. “We appreciate the patience that people are showing as we try to process this massive amount of claims.”

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The support put in place to ease the financial burdens may ease some stress for the recently unemployed, but the long term economical effects and adjusting to life after COVID-19 remains a concern for laid off employees and business owners. 

Restaurants that may have been thriving just weeks ago, now are faced with  immense decreases in customers or have chosen to shut their doors completely. For them, the fear is that they may not be able to reopen even once the statewide closure is lifted. 

For others, even if their jobs are still available at the end of the COVID-19 outbreak, they may wonder how their customers will adjust to a “new normal.”

Susan J. Demas

Burtrand is concerned that some of her loyal customers may not return to get a massage once the spa reopens. 

“What if people aren’t going to pay for somebody to touch them anymore? What am I going to do?” she said.

Burtrand’s income depends on appointments and she is concerned that her career may be taking a quick turn. 

“A lot of us are wondering, ‘What if?’ and ‘If and when can we get back to work,’” she said.