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Michigan Labor Official Describes Layoffs And Unemployment Benefits In His State


It could be a record month for layoffs due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus. States have shut down thousands of businesses in the service and hospitality industries. And companies in other industries are tightening up as the stock market has tumbled.

To talk about what this has done to the financial circumstances of workers, I'm joined now by Jeff Donofrio. He's the director of Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.


JEFF DONOFRIO: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: All right. So why don't we just start with the latest numbers in Michigan? How many people have applied for unemployment insurance this week versus last week?

DONOFRIO: Well, last three days alone, we've had 55,000 people apply, which is about a 1,500% increase...


DONOFRIO: ...Over the last week.

CHANG: Wow. OK. So we have mentioned that the service industry is taking a huge hit. Is that where you're seeing a surge of unemployment insurance claims, or are you seeing layoffs spreading broadly into other sectors? I mean, I know that yesterday, the big three automakers said that they were shutting down production until the end of the month.

DONOFRIO: That's where it's centered right now - right? - is in that service industry. But you know, we do expect that it will expand, especially as manufacturing and other durable good purchases slow down. We know that education - schools, of course, are closed down in Michigan here. And you know - so I think it's going to affect all parts of our economy.

CHANG: All right. Well, let's talk about the process of applying for unemployment insurance in your state. There have been widespread reports that the application website has been operating pretty slowly, and people haven't been able to get through on the phone. Tell us what you're doing to make sure that people can get their claims in.

DONOFRIO: So we've tried to make it easier to apply for unemployment insurance and extend benefits. So we've provided emergency support to those individuals who are (unintelligible) right now, increased the number of weeks someone has unemployment insurance and the time they have to actually file. We've also expanded unemployment insurance to sick workers or those who are quarantined and don't have any leave, for those who are caring for loved ones and don't have leave and for first responders at the same time. We know that it's taxing some of our systems...

CHANG: Right.

DONOFRIO: ...But we've added capacity from the staff level. We've made sure - just a few months ago, we upgraded our IT and call system, which has really helped a lot. And where other states, I think, have had trouble of even websites crashing - so far, we haven't had a problem with it here.

CHANG: Well, with respect to eligibility for unemployment, you've mentioned that your state has expanded eligibility requirements. Now people who have to take care of, say, sick kids or people who are immunocompromised can get benefits. But let me ask you - what about people who are self-employed or people who are independent contractors? Will they be able to access unemployment insurance in Michigan?

DONOFRIO: That's a - it's a real missing piece. And I know that Governor Whitmer and others have called on the president to declare a emergency disaster through FEMA, which would actually expand coverage for individuals who are 1099 - those independent contractors who otherwise aren't covered by unemployment insurance at the state level.

CHANG: What about people who have not been laid off but who have had their hours cut? Are you considering expanding benefits to them?

DONOFRIO: We're definitely considering that. In fact, we have a work share program, which helps employers who are looking to avoid layoffs - that we would actually subsidize their payroll when they cut back on individual hours for employees. So that's - we've waived some of the rules for that. We've expanded it greatly, and we've had a huge amount of interest here in the state of Michigan.

CHANG: Where you at the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity during the recession?

DONOFRIO: No, I was actually working in Congress. So I was at a - working for John Dingell, who was helping, I think, do a lot with the auto industry and making sure that there was really jobs to come back to after the recession. And so I witnessed it for - on the first hand on the front lines...

CHANG: Right.

DONOFRIO: ...Of Capitol Hill.

CHANG: Well, being in public service then versus now, I mean, how different does it feel now?

DONOFRIO: Well, it definitely feels similar. I think the difference here is, of course, that was an economic crisis. This is both an economic crisis and a public health crisis. And so I think the dynamic is a bit different, but I can tell you, you know, my team is energetic here. You know, as public service, we're really trying to run towards the sound of the guns - right? - towards the crisis at hand. And I think everyone has to make sure that we get support to the people of Michigan when they need it.

CHANG: Well, I wish you and your team the best of luck. Jeff Donofrio is the director of Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Thank you very much for joining us today.

DONOFRIO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.