Oxfam: Michigan is the 13th best state for workers during COVID-19

Best States to Work During COVID-19 | Oxfam
Updated, 7:18 a.m. 9/17/20, with information from LEO

A new study from Oxfam America shows that Michigan isn’t in the top 10 states for workers during the pandemic — but it’s close.

The Boston-based nonprofit ranked all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, on worker protections, health care and unemployment policies during the COVID-19 crisis. Michigan ranks 13th overall.

“When COVID-19 delivered a shattering blow to the economy in 2020, it put millions of working families at risk of illness, homelessness and hunger. The federal government response was slow and halting. In the face of great and urgent need, many states took action to shore up safety nets and to catch working families at risk of falling, while others have failed to respond at all,” Oxfam writes in the report.

Michigan ranks 12th for worker protections, 14th for health care and 16th for unemployment. The report notes that the minimum weekly unemployment is $201.47 and the maximum is $362, which puts the state on the low end. On average, unemployment checks account for 43.7% of cost of living. The maximum amount of weekly unemployment benefits nationally ranges from $190 in Puerto Rico to $823 in Massachusetts.

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Oxfam writes in the report that state responses to coronavirus have had a big impact on workers.

“Sometimes, they can keep a family above water: in their home, with food on the table, with healthcare,” the nonprofit writes. “For example, a moratorium on eviction means families can rest easy in their homes even when the paycheck stops; increased food assistance provides families with vital nutrition; a face mask requirement slows the spread of the virus; mandated paid sick leave means that workers can stay home when they are ill (and further slows the spread of the virus).”

Overall, the best state for workers is Washington, followed by New Jersey, California, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, the District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Vermont and Oregon. All have Democratic governors, like Michigan, or a Dem mayor except Massachusetts and Vermont.

Alabama ranks at the bottom for workers, followed by Missouri, Georgia, Wyoming, Mississippi, South Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, Tennessee and Idaho. All have GOP governors.

“To be clear, the pandemic has exacerbated challenges facing low-wage working families in the U.S. — but it did not create them,” Oxfam writes. “Rather, it has burned off the fog that was masking the ugly reality of deep, structural problems faced by millions of working families. Over the past few decades, as corporations and extremely wealthy individuals have exerted ever greater pressure on the federal government, worker power has declined, and their voices have been ignored. The result has been deepening inequality, and declining compensation and conditions for low-wage workers.”

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The index is based on three policy areas, weighted the following ways: worker protections (45%), health care (20%) and unemployment support (35%). The study examined policies and laws in effect between Feb. 15 and July 1, not federal relief efforts like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the CARES Act or the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

California leads the pack on worker protections, followed by Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, District of Columbia, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Illinois and Maryland.

Georgia ranks worst on this front, followed by Mississippi, Alabama, Wyoming, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Utah, Idaho, Missouri, Iowa and Ohio.

Michigan is 12th on worker protections, as it has protection against sexual harassment, protection against forced return to work, childcare for essential workers, state-defined essential occupations, state Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements, state-level loans, face mask requirements and grants for small businesses and allowed workers to sue corporations for COVID-19.

Many of these actions, like childcare options, mask mandate and PPE requirements, have been through Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency actions.

Michigan almost had robust sick leave in 2018. Republicans killed it.

However, Oxfam notes Michigan does not have mandated paid sick leave, mandated paid family leave, pregnancy accommodations and protection against retaliation.

In 2018, there was a ballot measure mandating paid sick leave, as well as another to increase the minimum wage. Both got more than the required number of signatures and went to the GOP-led Legislature, which approved them before the November general election. However, after the election, lawmakers gutted the new laws, leaving most workers without required time off.

The GOP-Legislature has not taken up sick leave bills this term, despite a push from Democrats during the pandemic.

For health care, Michigan comes in at No. 14. Illinois is the top-ranked state, followed by Illinois, Arkansas, New Mexico, California, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio, Vermont, Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington.

Tennessee is the worst-ranked state for health care, followed by South Carolina, Missouri, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Hawaii, Wyoming, Texas, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Kansas and Indiana.

The study notes that Michigan has expanded Medicaid access, expanded telehealth services, waived cost sharing for COVID-19 treatment, disaggregated COVID-19 data by sex and disaggregated COVID-19 data by race.

Whitmer suspends evictions until July 15, creates rent assistance program

But Michigan does not have a premium payment grace period. While Oxfam said Michigan has not expanded workers compensation due to COVID-19, a spokesperson from the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) points out that Michigan expanded workers compensation by emergency rules on in March and then by executive order in June.*

The last policy area Oxfam examined was unemployment and Michigan ranks 16th. Washington state again is the top-performing state, followed by New Jersey, Connecticut, Oregon, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Alabama is the worst state, followed by Missouri, Florida, Utah, Puerto Rico, Idaho, North Carolina, Wyoming, South Carolina and Mississippi.

Michigan has relaxed eligibility criteria, expanded unemployment benefits after the emergency funds from the CARES Act expired, has a moratorium on utilities shut-offs and increased food assistance, the study notes.

But the state’s eviction moratorium expired in July, there is no rent grace period and there is no expanded eligibility for undocumented workers.

Whitmer has created a $50 million rental assistance program that went into effect after the moratorium expired July 15. That was made possible by signing Senate Bill 690.

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Susan J. Demas is a 19-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.