Whitmer: Michigan to use federal $300 unemployment bonus as back-to-work incentive

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants to expand how Michigan uses federal unemployment funds to incentivize Michiganders to return to work after the COVID-19 pandemic, she announced Monday.

The plan involves providing a bonus of $300 per week to specific employees returning to their previous jobs through the week of Sept. 4, Whitmer said during a wide-ranging news conference.

She did not say when the program would start, how many people are expected to be eligible or any eligibility dates for those returning to work.

The payments are currently available only to employers participating in the state workshare program who bring back people previously employed, Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said.

But the governor is working with the Legislature to change the law to provide bonuses for any new employee hired by a business through a workshare program, not just those previously employed who are brought back. Leddy said additional details would be available later this week.

"We're going to use the federal $300 per week in unemployment benefits to our advantage, so we can incentivize people to get back to work, maximize a family's income and help employers fully build up their businesses and staff," Whitmer said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces an incentive program for workers returning to the job and a $1.4 billion plan to expand access to child care during a news conference at a Troy daycare center on Monday, June 14, 2021.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announces an incentive program for workers returning to the job and a $1.4 billion plan to expand access to child care during a news conference at a Troy daycare center on Monday, June 14, 2021.

The amount of money is the same amount available to those who are unemployed because of the pandemic, a payment that creates what Whitmer described as a false choice.

"Generally, people would have to choose: Either you take that, or you get back into the workplace. We don't want people to have that false choice, set people up for failure. We want to encourage people to get back into the workplace," Whitmer said.

"We're using this kind of as a bridge to getting back into full employment, continue to draw down this (money) on top of your paycheck. And that's a great way for working people to get back in without paying a price or having to make an unconscionable decision — do I stay out and make a little more or do I jump back in and get the benefit of both?"

Under the state's workshare program, an employee who has wages and hours cut by a business can earn back some of that money lost through unemployment. For example, if an employee takes a 30% weekly pay cut, under this program, that employee would be eligible for 30% of the benefits they would receive if entirely unemployed.

Through the proposal Whitmer discussed Monday, that employee would also be eligible for the additional $300 intended as an unemployment bonus.

A business cannot lay off workers after joining the workshare program. However, a workplace trying to reopen after closing its doors during the pandemic can use the program to bring back employees at a reduced rate, according to data provided by the state.

A state example describes an employer who wants to bring back 100 employees to restart business at 70% capacity for 12 weeks.

An employee is hired at a hypothetical salary of $1,000 per week, but hired to work under a 30% cut in wages and hours as allowed through the workshare program.

That would come out to a $700 weekly salary, plus 30% of the eligible unemployment benefits, $108.50. Add in the extra $300 unemployment benefit, and that employee is set to earn $1,108 per week through Sept. 4.

The state confirmed there are 764 employers actively participating in a workshare program, with more than 2,500 total participating since March 2020.

"We anticipate an expansion of the program to new hires would increase the amount of employers participating," said Jason Moon, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

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The move comes as conservatives and some business owners across Michigan and the country argue the government should stop paying people to stay home. They say the $300 weekly unemployment subsidy makes it easier for people not to work and harder for businesses to get back to normal.

"We've all heard the anecdotal talk of people staying unemployed because of the unemployment benefits being too high ... what we have found is that we need to expand our labor force," said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber who spoke at the same news conference.

"We're really excited to work with the governor on this plan as well, so we can get people back to work and let folks open their business back up and provide the level of service to their customers that they need."

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Supporters of the pay argue the incentives are a pittance compared with costs families are shouldering during the pandemic. They also point to rebounding unemployment figures as indicative that employees are returning to businesses that offer competitive pay and benefits.

Whitmer's announcement is part of a broader plan on how to use billions in federal COVID-19 relief dollars. That includes $1.4 billion to expand access to affordable child care. Whitmer, Williams and others noted that helping families find child care is crucial to the economy rebounding overall.

"Literally, everybody is hiring. It's a good time to get a job. Wages are high, they're getting higher. So go out and get hired," Williams said.

Contact Dave Boucher: dboucher@freepress.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan to use $300 unemployment bonus as back-to-work incentive