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COVID-19 and Unemployment Benefits: Q&A with Alexis Johnson

By Rebekah Page-Gourley posted 04-14-2020 14:01


Alexis Johnson is an attorney with Giarmarco Mullins & Horton PC, in their business litigation group, where she handles a variety of matters involving commercial litigation, product liability, employment litigation, and insurance defense. Alexis answers some commonly asked questions about the enhanced unemployment benefits available under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act commonly known as the CARES Act

How does the CARES Act expand eligibility and unemployment benefit amounts?

The CARES Act expands eligibility to individuals who do not already qualify for state unemployment benefits.  This includes those who are self-employed, 1099 independent contractors, gig, and low-wage workers who can no longer work because of the pandemic.

The expansion also increases weekly benefits for all unemployed individuals for up to four months and extends benefits payments from 26 to 39 weeks.  For example, in Michigan the maximum weekly benefit is currently $362.  Under the CARES Act, unemployed workers in Michigan may be eligible to receive an enhanced weekly unemployment benefit of up to $962.

The weekly enhanced unemployment benefits under the CARES Act are scheduled to be paid through July 31, 2020.

How does the Michigan Unemployment Insurance Agency’s filing schedule work?

Michigan is now second in the nation for jobless claims amid the COVID-19 pandemic, behind much larger California. Yet Michigan successfully processed 817,185 initial unemployment claims between March 15 and April 4. 

Workers are encouraged to file online during off-peak times, between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m.:

  • Last names beginning with letters A–L are asked to file claims on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays.
  • Last names beginning with letters M–Z are asked to file claims on Sundays, Tuesdays, or Thursdays.
  • Saturdays will be available for anyone to accommodate those who could not file during their allotted window. 

Workers may also file by telephone at 866-500-0017:

  • Last names beginning with letters A–L are asked to call on Mondays or Wednesdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Last names beginning with letters M–Z are asked to call on Tuesdays or Thursdays between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.
  • Fridays (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.) and Saturdays (7 a.m. to 2 p.m.) will be available for anyone to accommodate those who could not call during their allotted window. 

Workers should be sure to have the required documents on hand when submitting a claim. They should file or call during the designated times to ensure their claims are timely accepted. The key takeaways here are patience and persistence.

Do you have any other practical tips for employers or unemployed workers on how the CARES Act can help them get through the financial crisis caused by the pandemic?

This is a scary and confusing time for both employers and employees given the sudden economic shift. For employers considering layoffs, consider the following alternatives:

  • Paycheck Protection Program. This program is designed to encourage small businesses to maintain jobs and payroll by making them eligible for emergency small business administration loans up to $10 million that are forgivable if used for allowable purposes. The program is complex and has specific requirements.
  • Temporary Leave versus Termination. Placing employees on temporary leave instead of terminating them alleviates the immediate financial strain placed on businesses while still allowing employees to seek unemployment benefits, in addition to other potential federal and state assistance. The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity strongly urges employers to place employees on temporary leave instead of terminating them and advise the worker that they expect to have work available within 120 days.
  • Unemployment Insurance Work Share. This program minimizes the need for layoffs and enables a business to retain its skilled workforce instead of recruiting and hiring new employees later. If employers are financially distressed but hope to continue operations by cutting back hours, the Work Share program allows businesses to maintain operational productivity during declines instead of laying off workers. Instead of being laid off, eligible employees work a reduced number of hours in the week and receive a portion of weekly unemployment benefits to supplement their decreased income.

If layoffs are unavoidable, there are other resources available to help relieve the burden for unemployed workers such as automatic and optional forbearance for mortgages, automobile loans, and federal education loans. The CARES Act also allows individuals to access up to $100,000 through special withdrawals from accounts in eligible retirement plans without penalty to those affected by the coronavirus. Consult your provider to determine eligibility. 

What are some of the biggest pitfalls for employers during this time?

These are rapidly evolving times with no playbook for employers navigating COVID-19 concerns.  That is why it is important for employers to become educated about the law, particularly with respect to unemployment and new leave requirements for small businesses (employers with 500 or fewer employees) under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.  Employers should assemble a team of professionals consisting of an accountant, a lender, and an attorney, to assist them in navigating these new laws and to develop a plan for managing this situation.