Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer's office.
Photo via State Rep. Angela Witwer's office.

The coronavirus could cripple Michigan’s economy for years. State Rep. Angela Witwer is working to find longterm solutions for working families.

MICHIGAN —Two months before the coronavirus arrived in Michigan, Garrett Levis tested positive for HIV. Entering a global health crisis after discovering he was immunocompromised was a terrifying experience. 

Lewis, from Westland, also lost his job as a server when restaurants first closed down. Suddenly out of work and needing to pay for medical bills, Lewis turned to the unemployment system. When his restaurant reopened, Lewis couldn’t go back to work.

“My doctor told me that I cannot work until my T cells are normal because COVID will kill me,” he told The ̕Gander. 

T cells are the type of blood cell that combats pathogens, and are the type of cell that HIV destroys. Without them, even ordinary illnesses can become fatal. And already almost one in ten Michiganders who contract the coronavirus die. 

Unable to return to work and needing to reapply for unemployment, the growing pile of $40 medical bills are rapidly becoming more than Lewis can manage. 

“The hardest part is not being able to pay medical bills,” he said “They are small bills, but because I have had to have so many visits in such a small amount of time, the $40 bills have been adding up.”

And Lewis is a canary in the coal mine of the unemployment system.

COVID Enhancements to Unemployment Expire Soon

Those who have successfully collected unemployment during the pandemic have been getting an additional $600 per week, thanks to a federal benefit acknowledging the unusual nature of the current pandemic. That additional funding is set to expire at the end of July. 

For Michiganders, that expiration may come sooner, reports Newsweek, based on the day the state chooses to end its unemployment week. With the unemployment week ending on a Saturday, Michiganders may not be eligible for pandemic assistance the last week of July.

Around 22% of Michiganders are unemployed. That’s twice the national unemployment rate. Despite this, Trump and national Republicans are insistent that additional support will no longer be needed.

Marketplace reports it’s highly unlikely that the coronavirus enhancements to unemployment will last. It’s possible Congress will agree to phase the additional $600 out over time, but Republicans and the Trump Administration insist the economy will be robust enough by August that the extra aid will no longer be needed.

Serious warning bells are sounding for economy experts, but the Washington Post highlighted how unlikely it is for Trump to take meaningful action on that economic warning. 

“Bouncing back from this coronavirus recession with a robust recovery will require us to keep our families and businesses out of crippling debt and bankruptcy,” wrote state Rep. Angela Witwer (D-Delta). “We can do this by making sure families have money to pay their rent, fill their prescriptions and keep the lights on.”

While federal attention is needed to extend that extra support, there are unemployment reforms the state can take action on.

The extra unemployment benefit of $600 is not the only coronavirus enhancement set to expire. By the end of the year, state and federal protections expanding unemployment insurance to gig economy workers and others not normally covered by the system will go away.

Witwer is working on fixing that particular problem.

“It’s critical we put legislation in place to help ensure all workers — no matter what industry they work in — receive the same protections W-2 workers receive,” Witwer wrote. “If we’re to be successful as a state in the future, we have to recognize the growing importance of gig-economy workers.”

Witwer and her colleagues are also seeking to lower requirements and hurdles that have made it difficult to apply for unemployment. It took nearly two months for Lewis to get uninsurance, and many Michigan residents reported similar stories to The ̕Gander. Those barriers to the system are something Witwer is taking aim at. 

Witwer is specifically taking actions to protect gig economy workers and reduce the amount unemployment requires a person to have made in order to qualify. That change in particular would have helped Lewis.

“We’ve … proposed lowering the high quarter wage threshold, which requires a worker to earn $3,744 in one of the two previous quarters to be eligible to receive benefits,” Witwer wrote. “This requirement makes it particularly challenging for workers, like those in the restaurant industry, who have high wage variance.”