Assuming all things go as planned without any extensions, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order is set to end at 11:59 pm on June 12, with certain industries such as auto manufacturers being allowed to partially reopen before then. This extension is part of a carefully created protocol, known as MI Safe Start, which gradually eases stay-at-home restrictions based on how well COVID-19 cases are decreasing in the state. While Whitmer’s COVID-19 response has been lauded as an effective way to enforce social distancing after the state reopens fully without conditions, many of Michigan’s workers will face the harsh economic realities that being away from work has inflicted upon them.
While Whitmer’s most recent order allows for manufacturing workers specifically to go back to work despite the stay-at-home extensions, more needs to be done so job holders in all fields can see some degree of security. In order to make sure that Michigan’s economy does not tank in a manner consistent with the sustained high unemployment and homelessness of the Great Depression and the Great Recession, the state government should boost spending significantly, preparing businesses to keep the workers they already employ and making sure tenants can pay rent without fear of eviction.
For many Americans in Michigan and elsewhere, working from home is simply not an option. Including dining staff, salespeople at non-essential businesses like malls and department stores and other industries, many people are losing their jobs because they are not allowed to report to work due to stay-at-home orders. People are also losing their jobs because business revenues have plummeted due to stay-at-home orders. Naturally, this causes unemployment to rise dramatically. Many have also resigned to avoid contracting COVID-19.
While there are reports of hundreds or even thousands of firms hiring workers in Michigan right now, these numbers are quite deceptive as these businesses are in specific fields, like healthcare, which do not cover all of the newly unemployed. With regards to Michigan specifically, the state’s unemployment numbers exceeded 1 million workers filing for unemployment benefits, which is around 21 percent of the state’s workforce. This is up from 180,000 people filing for benefits before the COVID-19 outbreak, a rate of about 4.3 percent. This is a level not seen since the Great Depression and made Michigan the state with one of the highest unemployment rates (8 percent above average) in the country. While it is entirely possible that many of these jobs will return once the economy reopens and businesses have in-person consumers, many establishments have gone out of business due to the aforementioned lack of revenue.
In Michigan’s restaurant industry alone, approximately 10 percent of all restaurants in the state may have closed permanently (precise hard data is difficult to come by given the pandemic) in the month of April. To this end, Michigan legislators like U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., have supported and co-sponsored legislation such as the Essential Worker Protection Act, which calls for a federal interagency task force overseen by Cabinet members and other high-level officials to supervise federal support of newly unemployed manufacturing workers in Michigan. This task force would also supervise the allocation of credit to businesses to make sure they, and the jobs they provide, stay afloat during this crisis.
Although Whitmer does not have the individual power to authorize this level of financial oversight, working with the state legislature to pass appropriations boosting the funding already being considered at the federal level would be an ideal pathway to building a financial safety net not just for manufacturers, but for all industries who need the money to keep their workers employed. This will help ensure an improved level of employment growth and stability that can be sustained after Michigan is reopened.
Even though Michigan’s government temporarily halted evictions for failing to pay rent with a March executive order from Whitmer, those who owe rent will be hit with those bills again once the state reopens, even if they don’t have a job yet. Currently, the best solutions to this problem seem to be coming from private organizations. The tenant advocacy group Detroit Renter City has been pushing for, among other things, an extension of the halt on evictions until at least 60 days after the state of emergency expires (set to end on June 19).
While 60 days may be too long to prevent landlords from collecting their own income, the idea of making sure that tenants have ample time to either get new jobs or secure unemployment benefits — which have been delayed due to high-traffic website crashes in the last month — will stabilize the housing situation of many Michiganders. The Michigan government should certainly consider implementing this sort of temporary rent moratorium, while also again allocating funds that could be used to compensate landlords for their own lost income or serve as a form of financial aid to renters who are unable to afford other rent-related costs, such as utilities.
It may not seem like it due to the isolation of quarantine, but Michigan’s economy may struggle quite a bit once the state reopens. Unemployment is already spiking and homelessness may also reach new highs if rent and business closures are not addressed soon. The state government has a responsibility to Michigan residents to protect our financial interests as much as possible and that goal can only be accomplished by increased attentiveness to the necessary costs of keeping the labor force employed and housed.
Tuhin Chakraborty can be reached at email@example.com.