Opinion: Stand with Michigan workers through the crisis

Ron Bieber

In times of great crisis, true leaders lead. In the nine weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak reached Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her administration have proven time after time that they are up to the challenge. The handling of one issue in particular, providing unemployment insurance for those who have become unemployed by the current unprecedented economic crisis, demonstrates the stark difference in priorities between this governor and her predecessor.

Despite inheriting an Unemployment Insurance Agency from the previous administration that was in bad shape, crippled by years of funding cuts and a disastrous, self-inflicted robo fraud scheme, Whitmer’s administration has acted decisively to provide desperately needed benefits to the massive number of workers who have suddenly found themselves out of work. 

This enormous effort has even been recognized by Trump’s administration: According to the U.S. Department of Labor, our state has seen 1.33 million claims since March 15 (representing a quarter of all workers in Michigan), and 1.1 million of those workers have received some of the $4 billion in benefits that have been paid out. 

Since the start of this crisis, Whitmer has cut red tape by waiving arbitrary requirements to qualify for unemployment claims, extended the duration of benefits to 26 weeks to match nearly every other state in the country, and expanded eligibility so more people can gain these benefits. Her actions started less than a week after the first case of the novel coronavirus was reported in Michigan and have been sustained as the crisis has deepened.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan is outpacing the nation in providing aid to unemployed workers. Following the passage of the CARES Act by Congress, Michigan was among the first states to begin delivering the $600 extra weekly benefits. We are second in the percent of claimants waiting for a decision, and third in percent of the workforce receiving benefits — a statistic that measures both the depth of this awful crisis, and the effectiveness of the state’s response to it.

Let’s be clear: there is no justice for unemployed folks until every last dime owed is paid out. For those workers out there today, working every day to provide essential services so the rest of us can stay home and stay safe, there is still more that can be done. The Whitmer administration must finally act to amend the workers’ compensation process to provide an automatic presumption of workplace illness for those who contract COVID-19 on the job. That’s common sense, it’s long overdue, and it’s upsetting that it hasn’t yet been done. 

Every worker’s hopes, dreams and aspirations for their families are tied to their jobs, and they take great pride in the products they make or the services they provide. If we can just have each other’s back through this current crisis, we can beat it, and return to a prosperous economy where all have a fair shot at the American dream.

Ron Bieber is president of the Michigan AFL-CIO.

Labor Voices 

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Rory Gamble, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.