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A West Michigan congressman is accusing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of giving furloughed state employees preferential treatment for unemployment aid over regular citizens.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, a Zeeland Republican, wrote Monday to Whitmer, ripping her decision to automatically enroll 31,000 state employees in the state unemployment system while others have waited for weeks without receiving any assistance.

“While you have certainly found time to appear on national television programs, Michiganders still can’t properly access the unemployment system — the very system you utilized to prioritize state bureaucrats over families across West Michigan,” Huizenga wrote. “This is unacceptable.”

With a 22.7% jobless rate, Michigan has experienced a record number of unemployment filings — more than 1 million in April alone — after the state effectively shut down the economy in March to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

The Whitmer administration argued the process is fair and didn't cause state employees to jump the line.

“All employers are able to file an employer filed claim for benefits. Many businesses are using this including the Big 3 automakers," Whitmer spokeswoman Chelsea Lewis said in a statement.

"The employer provides us with employee information upfront — when they were laid off, wages, etc. Employees still have to go into the UI system and complete an application as well as satisfy certification requirements going forward. Claims filed in this manner, like with state employees, do not jump in front of existing claims and are processed as they come in.”

Whitmer’s administration has acknowledged a slow start in distributing the benefits after the coronavirus crisis began, in part because the unemployment website was swamped by applicants.

In May, the governor issued an executive order to expedite the benefits "for tens of thousands" of Michigan residents.

Huizenga said his office has heard directly from over 1,100 constituents “distressed” as they attempted to access unemployment aid.

He recounted tales from parents calling into the state system upwards of 100 times a day so they can put food on the table for their children.

He quoted an email from a Muskegon resident who filed for benefits March 30 after being laid off, still has not received any aid, and has overdue bills he can’t pay: “Please help me. My family depends on me.”

“My constituents are jobless and unable to get answers from an unemployment office that has been inconsistent at best and unresponsive at worst,” Huizenga wrote.

“Michiganders shouldn’t have to wait months to receive a check they are forced to file for because of your executive orders.”

He asked Whitmer for information including if any resources that could have been used to enroll “everyday” Michiganians were used to enroll the furloughed state employees.

Huizenga also accused Whitmer of setting up a “sweetheart deal” for state employees through which they collect a pro-rated unemployment check for a weekly furlough day. 

That enabled them to tap expanded benefits under the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, part of the federal stimulus relief package that Congress passed this spring, according to Huizenga.

“Don’t you find it troubling that state employees are providing fewer services for taxpayers yet making more than they would be if they were working five days a week?” he wrote.

mburke@detroitnews.com

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