Lawmaker to Whitmer: Narrow the stay-home order, speed up unemployment system
A Clare Republican lawmaker has urged Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to clarify her stay-at-home order and use common sense regarding businesses that can remain open under the directive.
Rep. Jason Wentworth also asked the governor in a Saturday statement to address problems at the Unemployment Insurance Agency that have left countless Michigan residents unable to log a claim because of slow or intermittent access to the online system.
“Good people are simply trying to put food on the table while their businesses sit closed due to COVID-19, and state government should not make that any harder than it absolutely has to be," said Wentworth, who is expected to succeed House Speaker Lee Chatfield should Republicans keep the chamber's majority.
The letter came as the state reported that the coronavirus death toll in Michigan Saturday had reached 540 and that a total of 14,225 people had tested positive for the virus.
Whitmer's office said the governor has been and will continue to work with GOP legislative leaders. The governor's administration also is working "around the clock" to increase capacity on the state unemployment website, said Tiffany Brown, Whitmer's spokeswoman.
"We welcome constructive participation from the Legislature, however, partisan potshots like this won’t do anything to slow the spread of this virus or keep Michiganders safe," Brown said.
Whitmer has worked with Republican leadership to make tweaks within some of her executive orders over the nearly four weeks that have passed since the state announced its first confirmed cases of coronavirus March 10.
But complaints from Republican lawmakers have ramped up in recent days, largely focusing on the governor's stay-at-home order and delays in the unemployment system.
On Tuesday, the GOP-led Legislature is expected to vote on a concurrent resolution to extend Whitmer's March 10 state of emergency, but the chambers are likely to shorten the extension to less than half of the 70-day extension Whitmer requested.
Whitmer's stay-at-home order lacks clarity and common sense exemptions nearly two weeks after its issuance, Wentworth said in his Saturday statement. Should the governor wish to extend the stay-at-home order beyond April 13, residents, families, and small businesses need answers so they "can plan ahead," he said.
“Many of the businesses who have been forced to close don’t even belong under the guidelines, while others are left in limbo because of unclear direction from the state,” Wentworth said.
Whitmer in a Thursday town hall doubled down on her stay-home order and Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan hinted strongly on Friday that the city would take more aggressive action to enforce social distancing.
At the Thursday town hall hosted by Detroit TV stations, Whitmer said a business largely is not essential “if it’s not a life-sustaining activity,” and she warned Michigan employers not to “play fast and loose” with the directive.
Whitmer assured residents that anyone who qualified for unemployment would receive it, regardless of delays in filing created by the system.
Even contractors or landscapers who generally work within social distancing requirements are not exempt because they might spread the virus through items they touch while working, Whitmer said.
“We’ve got to do what’s in the best interest of the health of the people of our state,” Whitmer said. “As long as all the science continues to point toward social distancing being the most important thing we can do we’re going to have to continue that stay-home order.”
Wentworth also criticized operations at the Unemployment Insurance Agency, where the website has been consistently slow and at times offline completely because of an unprecedented number of unemployment applications.
A reported 311,086 people filed for unemployment benefits between March 23 and March 28, according to the Associated Press. The figure is more than double the 128,006 who filed in Michigan the week prior under an expansion of benefits ordered by Whitmer.
"We’ve had a 4,000% increase," Whitmer said during the Thursday town hall. "This is going to be a challenge for us to simply keep the computer infrastructure up and running."
The agency has expanded server capacity and encouraged people to file from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. outside of regular business hours, but "the problem is getting worse," Wentworth said.
"Legislative offices have begun receiving an 'out of office' reply from the UIA email account servicing member inquiries, and families who contact the state looking for help are leaving empty handed," he said.