As many Michiganders continue to struggle, Republicans call for an end to emergency jobless benefits

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Updated, 2:17 p.m., 5/19/21

Yolanda Murray, a laid-off Westin Book Cadillac Hotel food service worker, has been receiving unemployment insurance during much of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m just trying to maintain,” she said. “Trying to maintain what I can maintain.”

Yolanda Murray and Eric Powell photo

About 75% of Murray’s Unite Here Local 24 hospitality-industry colleagues remain unemployed, according to Nia Winston, union local president. 

The American Rescue Plan Act provides a $300 per week federal supplement to 816,000 Michiganders. That’s on top of the maximum state jobless benefit of $362 per week — and it’s been at that mark since 2002. That’s less than half the maximum in Minnesota, another Great Lakes State, which tops out at $740 per week.

Murray, who lives in Eastpointe with her school-age son, Eric, wants to go back to work, but the pandemic has displaced her and many others in Michigan. Her unemployment benefits, both state and federal, essentially match her work wage, but she knows that those benefits will not be around forever. 

They also have been subject to increasingly louder criticism from Republicans and business groups, who argue that enhanced unemployment benefits are a disincentive for Americans to go back to work.

U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids) on Monday signed a letter calling for an end to supplemental job benefits as the COVID-19 pandemic heads toward a 15th month in Michigan.

“NEWS: I just led our Republican delegation in sending a letter to Gov. Whitmer to urge her to end Michigan’s use of the enhanced federal supplemental unemployment benefits that are hurting our small businesses & entrepreneurs,” Meijer tweeted on Monday.

Also signing the letter were the other six GOP members of the delegation: U.S. House Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland), Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Twp.), John Moolenaar (R-Midland), Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton). 

None of the seven Democrats who represent Michigan in the U.S. House signed the letter.

Whitmer signs bipartisan bills extending unemployment benefits 

“We all agree that the federal supplemental benefits served a purpose when businesses were forced to close in response to the public health crisis, but now, as the seven-day average of positive cases continues a three-week decline and hospitalization rates remain low, businesses both can and want to reopen, and employees can and should return to work,” the letter reads, in part.

Sixteen states have elected to opt out of federal unemployment programs before their official expiration on Labor Day, according to CNBC. They include Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming. All are led by Republican governors. 

A leading voice in the effort to end the benefit is the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which recently applauded GOP Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb for ending participation in the federal supplemental unemployment benefit program.

“Small business owners can’t find people to hire because they are making more money sitting on the sidelines, thanks to the federal unemployment benefits,” said Barbara Quandt, NFIB senior state director. “Our small business owners want to re-open and they want to grow the economy. However, they can’t do that if they can’t hire Hoosiers and create jobs.”

However, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, has strongly supported the extended jobless benefits.

“As we make our way out of the pandemic, our administration is continuing to focus on meeting the needs of Michigan families and small businesses,” said Bobby Leddy, Whitmer spokesman. “The governor does not support taking unemployment benefits away from people who have lost a job through no fault of their own during a pandemic. Instead, we will deploy the critical federal aid we’ve received through President [Joe] Biden’s American Rescue Plan to set up our state for success and ensure that Michigan’s families, businesses, and communities emerge stronger than ever from this pandemic.”

Almost 200K Michigan jobs could be lost if unemployment benefits expire

There have been other recent policy moves involving unemployed workers. Some Republicans in the state House have proposed giving unemployed workers $1,000 to enter the workforce as part of a COVID supplemental spending plan.

Last March, the state suspended a requirement that those receiving unemployment benefits show they are actively searching for work. The state will be reinstating that on May 30.

Chuck Nolen, owner of Cutter’s Bar & Grill in Detroit, understands the situation Murray and other workers are in. He believes that now is not the time to end supplemental federal jobless benefits. He has family members, friends, and employees who have benefitted from those payments.

Before the pandemic, he employed as many as 30 people at his popular venue located in the Eastern Market area of the city. It’s about half that size today. Nolen, who’s African American and lives in a region that was hit hard by coronavirus last spring and summer, said that the larger issue is the need for businesses to increase employee pay and provide equitable health care coverage, especially for people of color.

“You can’t just make a blanket statement that no one wants to work,” said Nolen. “By human nature, the majority of people want to work.”

He added that people who have health challenges or live with someone who does do not want to take the risk of going back to work.

“People are still leery of coronavirus. We still don’t completely understand it.”

Correction: This story originally had that the House passed the $1,000 return-to-work bonus.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.