Whitmer expands eligibility for unemployment benefits amid coronavirus outbreak

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expanded who can file for unemployment as well as benefits Monday amid the shutdown of restaurants, bars and other businesses due to the coronavirus. 

Those out of work caring for family members, either because they are sick or because of school closures, can now apply for benefits, according to the governor's office. Also, workers who are "sick, quarantined or immunocompromised" and who don't have paid family and medical leave or are laid off are eligible.

Benefits will also be increased to 26 weeks from 20, and the application eligibility period will be increased from 14 to 28 days. The state also is suspending in-person registration and work search requirements, according to Whitmer.

Eligible employees should apply for unemployment benefits online at Michigan.gov/UIA  or (866) 500-0017.

In addition, first responders who become sick or quarantined can apply. The order takes effect immediately and lasts until April 14. 

“While we work together to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, we must do everything we can to help working families,” Whitmer said. “This executive order will provide immediate relief to those who can’t go to work, and who rely on their paycheck to put food on the table for themselves and their families.

"I urge everyone to make smart choices at this time, and to do everything in their power to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.” 

Eligible employees should apply for unemployment benefits online at Michigan.gov/UIA  or (866) 500-0017.

Officials say they also are trying to develop programs for self-employed workers and independent contractors without unemployment insurance.

“We know that many families are and will experience economic pain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Jeff Donofrio, Director of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, in a statement.

“Our expansion of unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits is designed to help provide emergency support to Michigan’s working families."

Pete Vargas, state organizing director for Restaurant Opportunities Center in Michigan, said the nonprofit group is working to connect with individuals in the industry to "get them on the radar" and reach out to partners and local agencies to raise funds to assist amid the crisis. 

Vargas cited Department of Labor statistics, noting there are 140,000 tip workers in Michigan and about 80% of them are women. 

"Any of the support and help that we can get is going to go a long way to the folks that need it the most," said Vargas of the group that represents about 3,000 restaurant workers across the state. "We certainly applaud the governor for making any and all efforts for relief" for residents and low-wage workers.

Nik Cole, head chef at The Kitchen by Cooking with Que in Detroit on Woodward, said she'll be crafting a simpler menu on Tuesday and preparing for delivery and carryout services. 

"Today is a tough day. Not only does it affect me, but it affects my colleagues and co-workers in the industry," said Cole, 40, of Detroit, who also teaches classes for the opportunities center. "There's a whole industry of people who have been put out of work for however many weeks. We already don't have PTO or any way to recoup our wages."

Cole said her place of business already has been operated at way under half of its usual sales since worries have grown over the spread of the virus. 

The shutdown, she said, is "unfortunate" yet necessary and hopes that Whitmer's unemployment benefit plan will bring quicker relief. 

Traffic Jam and Snug co-owner Carolyn Howard said Monday that the Midtown restaurant is offering carryout from 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily and delivery through the GrubHub and Uber Eats app.

Carryout offerings include about 90% of their normal menu, plus a family-style, carry-out dinner and wine and beer to-go as well. 

"We’re trying to keep as many of our folks working through thi,s but with the limited scope of providing carryout only and the unknowns of what that might actually bring in, we are encouraging staff to file for unemployment," Howard said in an e-mail to The Detroit News.