Whitmer begins 2,900 temporary layoffs amid COVID-19 pandemic

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A day after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel confirmed the layoffs of more than a quarter of her work force, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is taking similar action within state government as tax revenues plummet in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Temporary layoff notices were sent to more than 2,900 of the state's 48,295 employees who are handling less than full capacity to save the state roughly $5 million, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer. The governor and legislative leaders still need to negotiate further budget cuts since the state faces an estimated shortfall of up to $3 billion in the current fiscal year because of the COVID-19-induced shutdown.

Whitmer said at a Wednesday press briefing that due to the unprecedented budget challenge posed by COVID-19 she made the “difficult choice” to approve temporary layoffs in departments across state government for 10 work days. 

Employees will retain their health insurance and other benefits and will be automatically enrolled to receive unemployment benefits, according to her office. 

Whitmer spoke to state employees on the livestreamed press event, saying she’s proud to serve alongside them and that they have a “special place in my heart.” 

“I know that you are a crucial part of this team,” she said. “I've mentioned that I've made a lot of hard choices in the past six weeks. This was one of the hardest. But this is the right thing to do to ensure that we can continue providing critical services to the people of Michigan.” 

House Appropriations Chairman Shane Hernandez called the layoffs "unfortunate but necessary." But the Port Huron Republican criticized the "special accommodations" the Democratic governor made allowing them to automatically be enrolled the delay-plagued system. 

“It would be one thing to automatically enroll a state employee if the system was working for others, but at this point, the focus needs to be on making the system works for everyone," Hernandez said. 

Whitmer denied state employees were getting a leg up in the unemployment process.

"It doesn't mean that they jump the queue," Whitmer said. "It just means that they won't have to go out of their way to sign up. We're asking a sacrifice of our state employees, so we wanted to take that as one stresser off of their plates."

As of Wednesday, the state unemployment agency had issued $825 million to more than 800,000 claimants who lost their jobs after the coronavirus, the governor said. 

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson's office said it was temporarily laying off more than 900 employees or 60% of its workforce starting Sunday. Many of the employees are branch workers from currently closed Secretary of State offices.

The layoffs will last for two weeks and could be extended, Benson's office said in a statement.

“This decision was not easy, but is necessary to responsibly steward taxpayer funds at this time," Benson said in a statement.

The state Senate laid off several non-partisan staff "whose job responsibility do not translate in a remote working environment, said Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake. 

But the House is not planning any layoffs, said Gideon D'Assandro, a spokesman for House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering. 

In early April, the state said it was looking at a “wide range of scenarios” that could blow a $1 billion to $3 billion hole in this year’s budget that ends Sept. 30 and a $1 billion to $4 billion hole in next year’s.

The current year budget is a little less than $60 billion while next year’s proposed budget totals $61.9 billion. School aid and general fund monies, funded by state tax dollars, account for roughly $26 billion of next year's budget. Federal money comprises most of the rest.

Early in the pandemic, Whitmer froze new hires and discretionary spending. On Monday, she said would take a 10% cut in her annual salary of $159,300 and asked her senior executive staff to take a 5% cut. Whitmer also gets a yearly $54,000 expense allowance.  

Nessel on Tuesday issued temporary layoff notices to more than 100 employees. 

"While certain areas of the Department’s legal work have dramatically increased as a result of this emergency, other areas have slowed," Nessel's spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney said in a statement. 

"The staff at this department do amazing work on behalf of the people of this State every single day.  We will continue to do that, regardless of the challenges that arise in the future.”