The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, April 08, 2011

State Republicans reduce jobless benefits to 20 weeks

By The Building Tradesman

LANSING – Michigan has suffered through its share of dubious “firsts” during this Great Recession that involve population loss, unemployment statistics, budget woes and political battles.

Next in line is a first involving reducing jobless benefits: A bill adopted by the Republican-led Michigan House and Senate and signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on March 28 made Michigan the first state in the nation to lower the number of weeks jobless workers can get benefits. The new law means from now on, unemployed workers will only be eligible for 20 weeks worth of benefits vs. 26 in the past.

However, in signing off on that six-week reduction in benefits, Snyder said a short-term trade-off would allow people currently out of a job to receive up to 20 additional weeks of benefits from a federal jobless program for those who have used up state benefits and most of their federal benefits. Those 20 weeks of federal benefits would have expired for 35,000 Michigan residents on April 1, and then for 150,000 jobless Michiganians by the end of 2011, if Snyder hadn’t signed the bill.

“These benefits are a lifeline for many Michigan families who are struggling in this challenging economy,” Snyder said in a statement. “Cutting them off so abruptly would have jeopardized the well-being of those who are trying hard to find work. Now that we have continued this safety net, we must renew our focus on improving Michigan’s economic climate. We will continue driving forward with our job-creating reforms so that fewer people need to rely on unemployment benefits.”

Snyder made no mention in his press release about the permanent reduction in unemployment benefits. That 26-week benefit level has been the standard among states for the last half-century. Michigan would be the first state to make such a reduction, but likely wouldn’t be the last, given the copycat nature so far shown by Republicans leaders controlling so many state governments.

State Republicans said they instituted the reduction in an effort to lower unemployment insurance costs for state businesses. Republican Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville – a moderate whom organized labor hoped would bottle up some of the anti-worker legislation in Lansing – told The Detroit News that the reduction in benefit weeks would save businesses between $600 million and a billion dollars annually. “It’s an accomplishment that’s huge for businesses,” he said.

Under the new rules, the reduction in state benefits will also reduce the federal benefits unemployed workers could receive. Democrats vowed to introduce legislation to restore the lost six weeks – but they’re in a hopeless minority in both houses of government. Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing) said “despite what the press releases are going to claim, this represents a net loss of unemployment benefits for the people of Michigan,” she said. “It hurts workers, it doesn’t help them. The Republican unemployment bill does two things. It’s a permanent net loss of unemployment benefits for workers and it protects businesses who act fraudulently. This has zero impact on jobs in Michigan. It hurts people who need help the most.”

Congressman Sander Levin (D-Southfield) said “Gov. Snyder’s decision to sign this reckless measure cutting the lifeline for Michigan’s unemployed will reverberate for years in Michigan. In signing this bill, the governor has tried to distract Michiganders from the full story, seeking to portray legislation that includes a drastic and permanent cut as a ‘protection’ for the unemployed. Republicans hijacked a simple technical change to extend 100 percent federally funded benefits this year and gave Michigan the dubious distinction of becoming the only state in the union with 20 weeks of state unemployment insurance. This would affect hundreds and hundreds of thousands of Michiganders in the future.”

The Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth is notifying affected residents that they will continue receiving their remaining 20 weeks of extended benefits. Claimants currently receiving Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits will not be affected. Once they exhaust their emergency benefits they will be notified to apply for the extended benefits.