GOP reps to Whitmer: End state's enhanced unemployment benefits

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The seven Republicans in Michigan's congressional delegation are urging Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to end the state's enhanced unemployment benefits, arguing they're contributing to a labor shortage.

Their letter to Whitmer follows an underwhelming April jobs report revealing fewer jobs were created nationally last month (260,000) than were expected (1 million).

The congressmen said they hear complaints "daily" from businesses in their districts that they're struggling to hire workers. The lawmakers and businesses are blaming the depressed hiring on a provision in the emergency relief bill that Democrats passed in March that extended federal supplement of $300 a week for state unemployment programs.  

"Michigan has taken strong steps to combat the pandemic, but continued participation in the emergency federal increase in unemployment compensation benefits is exacerbating the labor supply shortage and hindering our economic recovery," the lawmakers wrote, led by U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids.

"Today, we call on you to end participation in this program to get our state’s economy back on track and ensure our employers have access to the talent they need to return to normal."

Whitmer's office said Monday that she does not support taking unemployment benefits away from people "who have lost a job through no fault of their own during a pandemic."

"Instead, we will deploy the critical federal aid we’ve received through President Biden’s American Rescue Plan to set up our state for success and ensure that Michigan’s families, businesses, and communities emerge stronger than ever from this pandemic," spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

Michigan last week surpassed the threshold of 55% of Michigan residents aged 16 and older having received one dose of the vaccine, which will permit in-person work to resume for all sectors of business within two weeks under state guidelines. 

The House GOP members said the federal supplemental benefits filled a need earlier in the pandemic when businesses had to close due to the public health crisis, but that's no longer the case, with COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates declining. 

"... Businesses both can and want to reopen, and employees can and should return to work," the lawmakers wrote. "Unfortunately, these benefits remain so robust that employees are more incentivized to stay home and collect unemployment than to go back to work."

Michigan's unemployment rate dropped to 5.1% in March, according to data from the state Department of Technology, Management & Budget, down from the pandemic's April 2020 peak of 22.7%. Total employment in the state rose by 12,000 in March, producing a minor workforce gain of 8,000 over the month, the agency said. 

President Joe Biden last week defended the enhanced federal unemployment benefits and rebutted criticism from Republicans that the weekly enhanced checks are discouraging people from returning to work. He said his administration would not "turn our backs" on those who lost work as a result of the pandemic. 

"We're going to make it clear that anyone collecting unemployment, who was offered a suitable job, must take the job or lose their unemployment benefits," Biden said a week ago in remarks at the White House.

"I know there's been a lot of discussion since Friday's report that people are being paid to stay home rather than go to work. Well, we don't see much evidence of that."

Biden added that he expects that as the economy resurges and companies provide "fair wages and safe work environments, "they’ll find plenty of workers, and we’re all going to come out of this together better than before.”

"Americans want to work," he said.