Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced yesterday that the state would be lifting restrictions currently in place to fight COVID-19. Starting next Tuesday, the state will no longer limit gatherings or impose mask mandates, among other positive changes. More things are going back to normal in Michigan and the state has entered an economic recovery. Lawmakers can help that process by ending special pandemic assistance that provides an extra incentive to stay on unemployment. If the pandemic is over, it’s time to get off special pandemic assistance.
People on unemployment receive an extra $300 per week through a federal program, which began last spring to provide extra relief for people forced out of work as governments shut down portions of the economy. That served its purpose and we’ve moved on. The governor thinks it is time to get back to normal. Federal lawmakers think it’s time to stimulate the economy. To achieve both those goals, it’s time to return to our normal unemployment benefits as well.
Legislators are working on that. The Michigan House adopted House Bill 4434 yesterday, which would end the $300 per week extra pandemic-era unemployment bonus paid to workers during the pandemic’s most trying times. Indeed, over two million people in Michigan were collecting these benefits at the worst part of the pandemic, a full fifth of the state, according to Department of Labor data. As the state reopened, people left the unemployment rolls. There are, however, 250,000 people still receiving these benefits.
Michigan needs to catch up to other states. The state has lost 338,500 jobs since the start of the pandemic, a 7.6% drop and the 10th worst performance among the states. The number of job openings available has recovered, but the state’s labor force — the number of people working or looking for work — is down by 216,000 people. Returning to normal unemployment benefits can have an outsized impact on recovery.
If Michigan were to cease its participation with the federal unemployment supplement it would join half of its sister states in doing so. Many policymakers around the country have already recognized the subsidy as an impediment to a fully employed workforce. This argument is particularly strong given the challenges businesses face today trying to find workers for open positions.
The end of the pandemic doesn’t mean an end to unemployment or unemployment benefits. There are people who will struggle to find jobs, and people who will get laid off through no fault of their own. The state has safety net programs to help people in need, and if there are new demands from people struggling to recover, lawmakers should address them with those programs.
Entrepreneurs and business managers struggle to find workers and Michigan has fallen behind in its economic recovery. Fewer and fewer people are catching COVID-19 and others can protect themselves through readily-available vaccines. The state is returning to normal and it is good to see that lawmakers want to help by doing likewise with unemployment benefits.
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