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Take the ‘panic’ out of ‘pandemic’

During an unintentional gap-year in my full-time employment in 2006, I did some freelance work on a communications plan on avian influenza — bird flu. One of my slogans was “taking the panic out of pandemic,” with “P-A-N-I-C” being a different color or font in the word “pandemic” (I think it was for a billboard).

While bird flu, thankfully, never became what many people and public officials were fearing, I’ve been thinking a lot about that plan — and that mantra — in the context of the current coronavirus situation.

And, while my previous work was designed to help public officials communicate with the general public during a disease outbreak, I now find myself in a position to communicate the challenges and needs of the general public with elected officials during a similar — and actualized — health crisis.

Aside from the health concerns, one of the primary considerations in this coronavirus crisis is, how will people who are economically impacted be able to economically survive?

I still recall the challenges of being unemployed myself, but several of my family members and friends work in the service industry and are facing it right now.

And, with colleges and universities, public schools, and bars and restaurants (for dine-in) all officially closed, as of this week, a huge swath of the workforce is out of a job for the foreseeable future — and will need some extra support right now.

For starters, I want to reiterate that a majority of Michigan employees who are laid off with an expectation of returning to work or who suffer a reduction in work hours because of the COVID-19 business closures are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Workers can visit michigan.gov/uia to learn more and begin an application.

Additionally, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has announced she and her Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity were expanding unemployment insurance in direct response to the coronavirus pandemic and corresponding precautions.

That will help widen the safety net for Michigan workers who stand to be displaced or adversely affected by the crisis. Under the governor’s order, unemployment benefits would be extended to:

∫ Workers who have an unanticipated family care responsibility, including those who have childcare responsibilities because of school closures or those who are forced to care for loved ones who become ill.

∫ Workers who are sick, quarantined, or immunocompromised and who do not have access to paid family and medical leave or are laid off.

∫ First responders in the public health community who become ill or are quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19.

The state is also expanding access to benefits for unemployed workers by suspending the normal in-person registration and work search requirements and increasing the application eligibility period from 14 days to 28.

And available unemployment benefits will be restored from 20 weeks back up to 26 weeks.

As someone who was unemployed for about 48 weeks, I know every week you’re able to collect unemployment counts.

That’s especially true right now. It’s very hard to predict how long the coronavirus crisis could last — and how much longer the economic downturn it’s causing will linger.

These efforts are essential to backing up the state’s public health restrictions with corresponding economic considerations — and policy fixes. But, with work-hour and income limitations, there are still too many workers left out of our state’s unemployment system.

The last few days, I have heard about many people who are not eligible for unemployment because they don’t earn enough or haven’t been with their employer long enough.

My current employer, the Michigan League for Public Policy, put together a report a few years ago on how Michigan can improve its unemployment system. Though it was in a much different climate then, our policy recommendations on how to better support more unemployed workers are even more relevant now.

The governor has already acted on one — restoring unemployment benefits to 26 weeks. Other recommendations include pegging the maximum unemployment benefit to the average weekly wage, enabling benefits to keep pace with economic realities without the need for periodic legislative adjustments. The League also recommends expanding unemployment eligibility for part-time workers, workers who left their jobs for compelling family reasons, and/or workers who are pursuing skills training rather than immediate employment.

Finally, the state can also lower the minimum base period and high quarter earnings requirements for unemployed workers to collect UI benefits. Many workers who are firmly attached to the labor force do not qualify for UI because their earnings when employed were not high enough. Revisiting and adjusting those minimums will allow more workers to collect benefits as they look for work — a need that has been crystallized by this current public health and economic emergency.

I’m definitely experiencing some deja vu between my work in 2006 and right now: I’m again sitting in sweatpants at home, writing about a pandemic emergency. And I’m again wrestling with fear and worry about unemployment and a public health crisis.

But things have gone from dealing with my own unemployment and a theoretical catastrophe that thankfully never came to fruition to finding myself in the midst of a very real health threat — and the need to think about all residents in the state facing unemployment.

Thankfully, Gov. Whitmer, department officials, and policymakers are thinking of them, too — and, thanks to my current job, I’m able to help work on some solutions.

Alex Rossman is external affairs director at the Michigan League for Public Policy.

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