LANSING, MI – State lawmakers have struck a deal with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on unemployment benefits reform.
The Michigan House voted 101-0 after midnight during its Wednesday, Oct. 14 session to approve Senate bills 886 and 911, which closely mirror Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-76. The legislation would put temporary pandemic measures in place for Michigan’s unemployment system until the end of the year.
The Senate unanimously passed both bills with technical language substitutes later Wednesday morning. Negotiations between Whitmer, the House and the Senate started Tuesday, Oct. 13 and lasted into the wee hours of the next morning.
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After the Michigan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s emergency powers, she charged the legislature with ensuring unemployment benefits remain in place. An issue that held up negotiations between Whitmer, the House and Senate involved the unemployment bills being tie-barred to a package on COVID-19 lawsuit liability.
House bills 6030, 6031, 6032 and 6101 provide lawsuit standards for COVID-19 exposure for businesses, employees and people visiting said businesses. Whitmer has previously called the package “a solution in search of a problem.”
Related: Michigan House approves bills establishing COVID-19 lawsuit standards
Both sides dropped the tie-bar requirement, and both sets of legislation were approved separately.
The deal is “great news for working families and small businesses,” tweeted Speaker of the House Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.
“We have a deal on unemployment benefits and liability reform,” he said via Twitter. “The tie bar is no longer necessary, because we found common ground.”
The COVID-19 liability package passed in the Michigan Senate, some with bipartisan support and some on partisan lines.
State Sen. Ken Horn, R-Frankenmuth, sponsored the Senate bills and said Tuesday afternoon that he was optimistic the Governor would sign both, as both his and her staffs worked together during bill review.
“They (were) tie-barred because together they bring great balance in protecting both employees and employers, both public and private sector,” Horn told MLive.
Horn had previously said Whitmer should stop making “snarky, condescending speeches about us not working with her” and work with Republican lawmakers.
Just like Whitmer’s executive order, Senate Bill 866 extends the maximum unemployment benefit period from 20 weeks to 26 weeks, doesn’t make employers pay for benefits when someone is laid off due to COVID-19, allows employers to use the work-share program even if not normally eligible and allows people to receive benefits while taking time off work for a COVID-19-related cause.
Also, all benefits paid out during the pandemic are deemed valid, except in fraud cases.
The bill doesn’t mention waiving the requirement for people to actively search for work – like the executive order did – meaning recipients may need to prove they’re looking for a job to get paid, if the bill is passed as is.
Another excluded piece: It doesn’t include the provision from the executive order that makes the agency only look at a person’s most recent job to determine eligibility. Without that, anyone who quit a job for any reason in the last 18 months – even if it was just to move to a new job – would be disqualified from benefits.
That subtle note in the executive order has been the difference for thousands of people getting unemployment pay versus being disqualified, said Rachael Kohl, director of the Workers’ Rights Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School.
“The Workers’ Right Clinic has helped over 3,000 people, and this provision alone benefited a great majority of them,” Kohl said in an email. “This provision significantly helps the agency process claims more quickly because they only have to review one employer – the one causing the need for unemployment benefits.”
Senate Bill 911 retroactively allows retired workers that were rehired by the state to have suspended pension payments reinstated. It would prevent certain state workers rehired before July 30 from “double-dipping” for benefits.
The increase in payouts to unemployment claimants could be as much as 30%, according to Senate Fiscal Agency analysis. A cap on unemployment insurance tax for most employers would also likely “reduce the revenue generated,” according to the analysis.
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