Monday, March 16, 2020

Michigan Democrats to propose safety net for employees affected by coronavirus closures

Posted By on Mon, Mar 16, 2020 at 5:07 PM

click to enlarge "Temporarily closed" sign at Shinola's Detroit store. - STEVE NEAVLING
  • Steve Neavling
  • "Temporarily closed" sign at Shinola's Detroit store.

As thousands of businesses in Michigan close or reduce hours to combat the spread of the coronavirus, countless employees who live paycheck to paycheck are thrust into an untenable position: getting by with little to no pay.

Among the most vulnerable are hourly workers at hotels, arenas, airports, bars, restaurants, and casinos. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered many businesses to close Monday until at least March 30 after more than 50 people have tested positive for the coronavirus.

If the threat of the coronavirus stretches into the summer, as President Donald Trump said Monday, workers could be without an income for months.

The consequences can be dire: Delinquent payments lead to evictions, foreclosures, and shutoffs of electricity and gas. 

State Rep. Isaac Robinson is championing a four-bill package that would impose a 90-day moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and water, gas and electricity shutoffs. In addition, he’s drafting a bill that would remove the waiting period for unemployment benefits and expand who is eligible.

"The working families and students in my district already slammed by excessive car insurance costs are being devastated by the impact of this pandemic," Robinson tells Metro Times. "Every event that is canceled puts the livelihood of my constituents in question.”

"Rep. Robinson's bill offers a sensible, sound, and humane public policy (and more specifically, public health policy) response to the most significant public health crisis Michigan has faced in generations,” Jim Schaafsma, housing attorney for the Michigan Poverty Law Program, says in a written statement.

Other Democrats helping draft and push for the bills are Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit; Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac; Rep. Jewell Jones, D-Inkster; and Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor.

Michigan lawmakers are back in session Tuesday, when Robinson and his Democratic colleagues hope to get the bills moving.

“At a time when resources are depleting at an incredible rate, it's critical that we put forth safeguards to protect the people we serve,” Jones says in a written statement.

Community and nonprofit leaders also are getting behind the legislation. Without a safety net, homelessness is a very real possibility for workers who are losing their paychecks, says Tonya Myers Phillips, attorney with Sugar Law Center and public policy adviser to Michigan Legal Services.

“With decreased income, people will get behind on rent and become subject to eviction and homelessness, and our shelters are already at capacity,” Phillips says in a written statement. “The system cannot accommodate a further increase in homelessness. People living on the street and in the shadows, without access to shelter or clean water, will further exacerbate the public health crisis we’re living in. A moratorium on evictions is the right thing to do and will make us all safer."

On Monday, Whitmer issued an executive order to temporarily expand eligibility for unemployment benefits. Those benefits would be extended to employees who lose time at work to care for their children due to school closure or to help a sick loved one, and workers who are sick, quarantined, or immunocompromised and don’t have paid time or are laid off.

“While we work together to mitigate the spread of coronavirus, we must do everything we can to help working families,” Whitmer said in a news release. “This executive order will provide immediate relief to those who can’t go to work, and who rely on their paycheck to put food on the table for themselves and their families. I urge everyone to make smart choices at this time, and to do everything in their power to keep themselves and their loved ones safe.”

Robinson also is drafting a bill to remove the waiting period for unemployment benefits.

“We need to remove the red tape and provide immediate relief,” Robinson tells Metro Times.

Robinson has been meeting with community groups and nonprofits over the past week to help some of the state's most vulnerable people.

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