Whitmer signs bill letting part-timers keep pandemic unemployment aid

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has signed a bill into law that is expected to clear the way for part-time workers to keep unemployment aid they received during the pandemic. 

The eligibility of part-time workers for unemployment and their ability to keep it after the fact was in question following confusion over whether claimants should have marked whether they were "able and available" for full-time work during the pandemic. 

Michigan law requires applicants to be able and available for full-time work to receive jobless aid, but federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance made exceptions for part-time workers or for those who were not seeking full-time work because of pandemic related reasons. 

The Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency's website explains its early COVID-19 2020 process for filing claims on different days of the week based on their last names.

The bill signed Monday from Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, would get rid of the "able and available" rule for claims filed during the pandemic, specifically between March 1, 2020 and September 2021. 

“I’ve always said that Michiganders should not be penalized for doing what was right at the time they applied for federal pandemic benefits," Whitmer said in a statement announcing her signing of the bill. "The changes in this legislation will streamline our unemployment system and provide relief to Michiganders who needed these federal benefits to pay their bills, keep food on the table, and continue supporting small businesses.” 

The legislation is the latest effort to correct issues that affected thousands of Michigan residents who believed they qualified for unemployment under expanded federal rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, only to be told months after being paid that they were ineligible and owed money back to the state.

The Unemployment Insurance Agency did not immediately have a tally regarding how many claimants the legislation would affect. 

The implementation of the legislation and other federal waiver guidance will depend on the state agency's ability to set up a redetermination process for those who might be again eligible under the changes.

Claimants have complained about uneven treatment under a separate state unemployment overpayment waiver program. For more than a month, the agency has declined to answer questions regarding how many people have successfully received a waiver under that program and how many people still are seeking one.

Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was tailored toward those who wouldn't usually qualify for unemployment aid, such as gig workers, self-employed or part-time employees. But the federal measures ensuring aid for part-timers conflicted with state law limiting jobless aid to full-time workers. 

The conflict between state and federal law caused some applicants to mark they were not "able and available" for full-time work because they weren't sure if they could return to work while the pandemic still raged, they were taking care of a sick loved one or they had to remain home to take care of their kids because of school closures. Others were part-time workers who were eligible under the guidelines of the federal pandemic jobless aid but not under state law, so they were unsure how to mark the state eligibility question when applying.

The confusion over the qualification meant many applicants never received unemployment payments or were later pinged for answering they were "able and available" when they'd only been working part-time. 

Whitmer's signing of the bill appears to resolve some cases currently under appeal before the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Appeals Commission, which had yet to rule on the "able and available" quandary.

 "Combined with Gov. Whitmer’s success in securing flexibility from the federal Dept of Labor, the signing of this legislation will provide relief to thousands of people fighting with UIA over paperwork," Irwin said in a statement. 

The U.S. Department of Labor earlier this month directed state unemployment agencies to expand waivers for potentially thousands of people who were unwittingly caught up in the rushed rollout of federal unemployment relief. 

That guidance also seems to address the "able and available" question, clearing the way — at the federal level at least — for people who marked they were not "able and available" for work because of the pandemic. 

The federal guidance also broadly absolved others who received a higher rate of weekly pay than they were supposed to get because of a state error.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com