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State: More than 108K unemployment claims in 5 days, up 2,100%

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

More than 108,000 people filed unemployment claims in Michigan between Monday and Friday last  week after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer expanded the state's unemployment benefits amid business closures prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 108,710 claims filed last week was a 2,100% uptick from the average 5,000 weekly claims filed with the Unemployment Insurance Agency.

During the Great Recession, between October 2008 and July 2009, an average of 31,500 initial claims were filed on a weekly basis with a peak week of 77,000, according to data from the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. 

"Extending and expanding unemployment benefits has provided emergency relief to many Michiganders,” department director Jeff Donofrio said in a statement. “Even though we’ve seen an unprecedented need for emergency financial assistance, Michigan’s unemployment system, and its hardworking staff, continue to provide critical help online and over the phone."

The uptick in claims filed over the week has at times slowed the state's unemployment website, but the department added server capacity to address the problem, said Jason Moon, a spokesman for the department.

On Wednesday, 32,000 claims were processed, he said. That same day, the state closed the agency's lobbies to all but appointments to stem the spread of coronavirus and moved most filing activities online.

“We did add server capacity and our reports show that it is working well,” Moon said. “…We’re continuing to monitor the system closely.”

Michigan's unemployment benefits are paid for through "a $4.6 billion trust fund which has been built up over the last 10 years," Moon said. At the start of the Great Recession, in September 2008, the same trust fund had less $40 million. 

Whitmer on Monday expanded eligibility for benefits in the wake of COVID-19 closures and suspended rules requiring in-person registration and work search requirements.

Whitmer’s order expanded benefits to 26 weeks from 20, and the application eligibility period will be increased from 14 to 28 days.

The expansion covered those out of work caring for family members, either because those family members were sick or because of school closures, as well as workers who were “sick, quarantine or immunocompromised” and who have paid family and medical leave or are laid off.

Public health workers and first responders who become ill or quarantined because of coronavirus exposure also are covered under the order.

The order also exempts employers who had to layoff people because of a coronavirus order from being charged for those unemployment benefits.

People can file for benefits by calling (866) 500-0017 or at www.michigan.gov/uia.

“We’re just trying to make sure there’s open lines of communication at all times so not just employers but employees understand the opportunities that are there right now,” Moon said.

The agency is encouraging employers to place employees on temporary leave with an expectation that they’ll return to work within 120 days instead of laying them off or terminating them, which could harm their chances for eligibility for potential expanded federal assistance.

Employers also are encouraged to use the agency's work share program, which allows employees who have had their hours cut to collect partial unemployment benefits to make up the difference.

The state also has delayed monthly sales, use and withholding tax payments from the regular due date of March 20 to April 20. 

The Michigan Economic Development Corp. also has up to $20 million to supplement small businesses. The Michigan Small Business Relief Program allows the corporation to distribute up to $10 million in grants and $10 million in loans. Those and other resources are available at (888) 522-0103 or www.michiganbusiness.org

Nonprofits, small businesses and small agricultural coops can apply for $1 billion in low-interest loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration at disasterloan.sba.gov/ela/

Information about filing an unemployment claim can be found on the state's Unemployment Insurance Agency website

eleblanc@detroitnews.com