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Unemployment Codification Linked With COVID Business Immunity

October 13, 2020

Legislation codifying the Governor’s emergency executive order on expanded unemployment insurance benefits passed the Senate unanimously Thursday, but Democrats objected to Republicans linking the bill to expanded COVID-19 liability protections for businesses.

SB 0886 makes sure those with COVID-19 or caring for a loved one with COVID-19 are able to receive the expanded 26 weeks of unemployment as opposed to the standard 20. Democrats had no objections with the Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth) bill that also covered those workers who need to quarantine due to being exposed to someone who had tested positive. 
 
However, they did have a problem with a legislative link to four House bills they feel give businesses too much legal immunity from COVID-19 claims. The Governor has vetoed a prior attempt at this type of move and she’s not in support of the four bills (HB 6030, HB 6031, HB 6032 and HB 6101)) as they stand now. 
 
“I think it was a huge mistake because what you’re doing at that point is slowing down this entire process,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. (D-East Lansing). 
 
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) called the link necessary because it’s important those bills, too, are signed into law. 
 
“All these comments about antics and politics, it seems like . . . politics and antics are OK for one side and not necessarily the other. But this isn’t politics. These are important set of bills that need to get processed.” 
 
AFL-CIO Michigan President Ron Bieber said, “Every time you think they’ve found the bottom, Republicans stoop ever lower . . . They have taken unemployed folks hostage, threatening them if they don’t get their liability bailout for big businesses. It’s disgusting and wrong, and they should be ashamed of themselves.” 
 
Democrats also unsuccessfully attempted to tie bar the unemployment bill to others that raise the maximum weekly benefit from $362 to $603, a $1,000 grant for those who are waiting too long for their first UI check and other legislation. 
 
Republicans are leery about making such changes given the quick depletion of the Unemployment Insurance Agency (UIA) Trust Fund due to the pandemic. It was at $4.6 billion as of March 2020, but is now down to $1.26 billion as of Wednesday, according to the UIA. 
 
In sum, the Legislature took the first step Thursday in codifying several of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency executive orders in the face of the recent Supreme Court ruling that invalidated the law they’re based on. 
 
Bills to continue expanded unemployment liability, nursing home protocols and remote local government meetings passed nearly unanimously and now head to the House for action. 
 
“There were no surprises in these bills,” Shirkey said. “They’ve basically come up before. Same ones that have been either mocked, dismissed or vetoed. Same ones, for all intents and purposes.” 
 
The other hiccup was Sen. Ed McBroom’s (R-Vulcan) concern that allowing local government bodies to get too comfortable holding remote hearings will, over time, allow them to conveniently distance themselves from the people they are elected to serve. 
 
“The Senate is meeting in person. Why can’t other governmental units if they take proper safety precautions?” McBroom said.  He argued that unless the lives of people are being put in immediate danger by meeting in person, they should meet in person. 
 
“We are setting a dangerous precedent that threatens the sanctity and openness of government,” he said. “The longer this goes on, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes the more corrupted it can be. It won’t be long before this seemingly innocuous step develops into a cancer on the democratic process.” 
 
Overall, the four bills passed Thursday — SB 0886, SB 0911, SB 1094 and SB 1108 — passed with only two no votes among the four. Shirkey agreed Thursday’s action is a good sign that the Legislature and the Governor can work together to continue needed public protections in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. 
 
Shirkey and Whitmer have yet to have a face-to-face conversation about the legislation. 
 
SB 0886 includes the following provision: 
 
– An employee laid off or on leave due to COVID-19 won’t have those benefits charged to their employer but to the nonchargeable benefits account until Dec. 31. The goal is prevent employers from facing higher unemployment taxes due to COVID cases. 
 
– Allows those left unemployed due to COVID-19 to receive 26 weeks of benefits up until Dec. 31. 
 
– Gives employers the opportunity to continue a workshare program in lieu of layoffs until the end of the year. 
 
– Allows people who are self-quarantining due to COVID-19 or assisting in the care of a family member who is quarantining due to COVID-19 to receive unemployment benefits until Dec. 31. It also allow for benefits for those who are self-quarantining because they had contact with someone with someone with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. 
 
– Makes these changes retroactive back to March 15. 
 
SB 0911 makes it easier for retirees of the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency and MIOSHA to return back to work until Dec. 31 without it affecting their retirement benefits. 
 
SB 1094 requires COVID-19 regional hubs to provide a detailed legislative report about their operational plans and protocols for patients. The bill also requires monthly reports on COVID-19 cases and deaths from nursing home residents and staff. 
 
SB 1108 allows local governments to meet remotely until Jan. 1 and makes official any action taken remotely since the pandemic began.

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