LANSING – The end of the 2011 legislative session was as bad as the beginning, and the middle, for the state’s working class.
On Dec. 19, Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law two pieces of legislation adopted along party lines that reform (read: reduce) how benefits are allocated for workers seeking workers’ compensation and Unemployment Insurance (UI).
“These bills are critical to our reinvention of Michigan,” Snyder said. “Modernizing our unemployment insurance and workers’ compensation systems will ensure their solvency and integrity.”
State Democrats responded that Republicans have used their complete control of state government to attack working people, while fulfilling the legislative wish list of the big business community. “I am beyond frustrated with the relentless barrage of legislation designed solely with the intent of making life more difficult for hardworking, middle-class Michiganders,” said state Sen. Glenn S. Anderson (D-Westland).
According to Gongwer News Service, at the signing ceremony for the unemployment compensation reform package, Snyder “spent most of his time” talking about the portion of the legislation that would allow the state to issue revenue bonds to allow it to pay off $3.2 billion in federal jobless aid debt owed to the federal government (which charges a higher interest rate than revenue bonds). This was the only bipartisan portion of the package and helps ensure a solvent Unemployment Trust Fund.
What Snyder didn’t want to focus on was the reforms to Unemployment Insurance and workers comp and that will make it more difficult for workers to access those benefits.
The new law affecting UI will require some jobless workers to accept new employment after receiving 10 weeks of benefits – even if the work that’s available is outside their previous experience or pays lower wages than they were making before. The law also will make it more difficult for someone to collect unemployment benefits if they leave a job voluntarily or if they’re fired for cause.
Jobless workers would have to conduct a “systematic and sustained search for work,” with regular progress reports sent to the state. And, the new law requires jobless workers to take a job paying 120 percent of their weekly UI benefit. Critics say that creates a low-wage trap for jobless workers and takes time away from hunting for jobs at better pay levels.
Earlier last year, state Republicans made Michigan the first state in the U.S. to permanently reduce the standard Unemployment Compensation benefits level from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.
The new law affecting workers’ compensation subjects workers who are injured on the job to a new standard for getting benefits. Construction workers injured on the job who can’t work in the field but could flip burgers would have their workers’ compensation reduced by the amount they could earn at Burger King – if a job is “reasonably available.” That’s the “phantom wages” portion of the bill that’s so galling to Michigan’s workers. Injured workers are also required to see company doctors for the first 28 days of treatment after an on-the-job injury.
Police and firefighters were inexplicably exempted from the bill, but it’s no coincidence that those professionals are in large part, conservative voters. Senate Democrats fought, and failed, to get amendments to strengthen the bill, including calling for additional exemptions for veterans, hospital workers and construction workers. Dems also failed to shorten the 28-day moratorium on injured workers being able to seek a second opinion outside of company-sanctioned medical personnel.
“The Republican majority simply refused to see that their policies are hurting Michigan seniors, families and unemployed workers trying to find new jobs,” said House Democratic Leader Richard Hammel (Mt. Morris Twp.). “These are not happy days for most working Michigan families.”