Ayman Abdalla, an immigrant from Sudan, worked in a restaurant in the Detroit Metro Airport as a food runner until March. Abdalla said he was “doing fine” with a combination of his hourly wage and tips, but since the pandemic began he has struggled to make ends meet for his family. 

“When the pandemic hit, unfortunately I (was) laid off,” Abdalla said. “I was doing okay with the $600 unemployment benefit, but now I’m in the middle of a struggle because right now I am relying on the state benefits.”

In addition to his struggle with unemployment, Abdalla said his 10-year-old daughter will be starting school in a few weeks. He’s unsure of how he will manage a job search and keep tabs on her education simultaneously.

“I am really concerned about how I am going to deal with that because (if) I will be homeschooling, I don’t know how I am going to arrange her school work and my job,” Abdalla said. “Right now I am looking for jobs.”  

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., hosted a virtual conference with Abdalla; Stephanie Byrd, a struggling Detroit business owner; and a spokesperson for the Biden for President campaign Thursday morning to discuss the challenges of unemployment facing Michigan workers. 

“People are scared,” Dingell said. “They don’t know how they are going to live, they’re worried about what’s going to happen because we’ve gone off a cliff with unemployment.”

President Donald Trump signed off on an executive action over the weekend partially continuing unemployment benefits at $400 per week and asking states to cover 25 percent of the payments. The previous federal benefits of $600 lapsed after negotiations in Congress stalled. However, the benefits authorized by Trump could likely be only $300 with states not required to pitch in.

Dingell blamed Trump and Congressional Republicans for the failed negotiations. She expressed excitement about Joe Biden’s vice presidential pick, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., but said it is time to bring the focus back to addressing current political issues.

“Now people really need to be looking at the issues and what’s at stake,” Dingell said. “Last week, the Commerce Department reported that the GDP has shrunk by an annual rate of 33 percent.”

Dingell emphasized the importance of economic reform given the high unemployment in Michigan and across the nation. While new unemployment claims are dropping across the state, more than 14,000 were made last week, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“One in four people in Michigan does not have a job,” Dingell said. “It’s really scary, the numbers are mind-boggling, but I want you to think about what this means to a family and the devastation that it has created for families across the country.” 

Byrd, who co-manages several restaurants and entertainment venues in Detroit including the Garden Theater, said the shutdown this spring was hard on her family and on their staff. 

“When the pandemic hit in March, we had to shut down all operations (and) we were completely devastated,” Byrd said. “Not only for our family, but mostly for our staff. We rushed to help them get unemployment benefits and other resources and just to navigate the waters during the pandemic.”

Byrd said while the state has begun to reopen, her business and employees are continuing to face challenges. 

“We were shut down for months and months, and our staff really struggled to get by,” Byrd said. “Today, though, things really aren’t that much different. Our restaurants are back open, but at 50 percent capacity and the Garden Theater is still shut down.” 

Byrd said she is worried about her business and its chances of recovery under the current administration.

“I worry if we don’t pick up business in the next few weeks that we’re going to have to close down again,” Byrd said. “… It is pretty uncertain regarding our business and our survival. If we have competent leadership in the White House, we wouldn’t be here (and) I’m absolutely certain of that.” 

Dingell said all workers, including essential workers, are being laid off with limited federal funding going to the state and local governments. In May, Michigan Medicine announced it would lay off and furlough around 1,400 full-time employees as part of a plan to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Michigan Medicine lost millions of dollars due to COVID-19 costs and canceled procedures.

“The frontline workers are being laid off,” Dingell said. “It’s the EMS workers, it’s our firefighters, it’s our police, garbage workers (being laid off), and we need to reopen schools. (But President Donald Trump) will not send money to the local levels of government to help them.” 

Dingell concluded the event by discussing how to bring jobs back to Detroit and the importance of an administration that understands these issues, noting her late husband’s impact in the district.

“One of the key programs in the Obama administration was investing in the technology programs …which Trump has just destroyed,” Dingell said. “… There is nobody, other than John Dingell, that I trust in understanding the auto industry and getting this issue than Joe Biden.”

Daily Staff Reporter Sarah Payne can be reached at paynesm@umich.edu. 

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