Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Monday there would be new programs for workers and some expansions on unemployment benefits for workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The governor, under the federal CARES Act, signed an agreement between Michigan and the U.S. Department of Labor to implement Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Compensation programs that grant benefits to workers who do not already qualify for state unemployment benefits.

Workers affected by this change include those who are self-employed, 1099-independent contractors and low-wage workers who can no longer work because of the pandemic.

The agreement also increases weekly benefits for all unemployed workers by $600 a week for up to four months and extends benefit payments from 26 to 39 weeks.

“The state of Michigan is dedicated to implementing measures to protect the health of all our residents and we understand financial health is critical as we meet this challenge together,” Whitmer said in Monday’s news release. “This increase and expansion of unemployment benefits will provide a measure of security for Michigan working families who lost their income due to the pandemic. We are committed to ensuring emergency financial relief for unemployed residents who continue to stay home and stay safe.”

The move was made after a record 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits in the week that ended March 21.

Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency also developed a schedule for workers to file for benefits based on the first letter of their last name. The new filing schedule is expected to reduce the backups experienced by the historical number of Michiganders seeking unemployment in the last few weeks.

The filing schedule is broken down between online and call center filings. Those filing online are recommended to visit Michigan.gov/UIA, and those who prefer to reach the call center can call 866-500-0017.

For the new online filing schedule, workers are encouraged to go 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.

For the new call center filing schedule, those with last names beginning with letters A-L are asked to call between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays.

Workers with last names beginning with letters M-Z are asked to call between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays will be available for anyone to accommodate those who could not file during their allotted window.

“We continue to urge workers to apply online at Michigan.gov/UIA and to utilize our new filing schedule based on their last name,” Jeff Donofrio, director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, said in a news release. “UIA staff is working as hard and fast as they can to process claims and we continue to reallocate resources and upgrade technology to serve our customers.”

This isn’t the first change to unemployment benefits the state has pushed through the past two weeks.

When Whitmer signed the executive order last week, it did more than close non-essential businesses. The order also temporarily expanded eligibility and lifted reporting requirements for unemployment benefits.

Under the governor’s order, access to benefits for unemployed workers were extended.

That meant the normal in-person registration and work search requirements were suspended.

According to Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, the executive order expanded unemployment benefits to sick workers, workers caring for loved ones and first responders.

Workers who have an unanticipated family care responsibility – including those who have child care responsibilities due to school closures, or those who are forced to care for loved ones who become ill – have been added for unemployment benefits.

Individuals working in the public health community who become ill or are quarantined due to exposure to COVID-19 also fall under unemployment protection.

The job search

For those seeking employment opportunities in Southwest Michigan, Michigan Works employees are still at work to find people work.

As of March 24, all Michigan Works Berrien, Cass and Van Buren service centers were closed for walk-in services and shifted to providing service remotely.

Lily Brewer, executive director of Michigan Works for Berrien, Cass and Van Buren, said their centers have been fielding three times the amount of phone calls that are unemployment related.

“We are not the unemployment agency, but we give them tips to file their claim successfully,” Brewer said. “What we find is individuals want to be reassured that they are not doing anything wrong.”

Brewer recommended residents reach out to Michigan’s Unemployment Insurance Agency to file for unemployment.

For some people, Brewer said this is a temporary layoff.

She said Michigan Works has seen a surge in temporary hirings from companies like Amazon, Meijer, Walmart and Lowe’s.

“We are connecting people to what is available at the moment,” Brewer said. “For example, your local grocer is having a hard time stocking their shelves. This could be a good source of income at this time. It is helping us who are still working remotely and accessing our grocery store.

“On top of the job search, we are continuing our career services,” Brewer added. “Just because COVID-19 hit us, doesn’t mean we have stopped all our cases.”

Southwest Michigan business owners and residents can schedule a phone or virtual appointment with Michigan Works by visiting www.miworks.org or by calling 269-927-1799.

Contact: twittkowski@TheHP.com, 932-0358, Twitter: @TonyWittkowski