GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Hundreds of thousands of Michiganders are set to lose their unemployment benefits after Christmas.
Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) runs out on December 26.
In the most recent week available the UIA says 480,000 PUA claims were certified, meaning those people will be losing their benefits unless lawmakers step in to help.
“We’ve been collecting, but in the middle of it the whole month of September and two weeks in October, we were just refused payment,” said Trish Kamer of Holland.
She opened Gezelligheid Event Venue in 2018. After the pandemic hit, her business refunded all customers and down payments. A retired teacher from Zeeland, Kamer may soon be forced to shut down for good.
“We were discussing yesterday that maybe this just isn’t sustainable for us anymore,” she said. “We may just have to use it as office space and lease that space or rent it out. We don’t want to, we just don’t see an end in sight right now.”
Earlier this year, FOX 17 helped Trish get her PUA account fixed. After our story aired, she got paid. But now, with the program ending, she’s stuck.
“It’s a real struggle right now,” said Kamer. "Our vision was to be able to do this and pass it onto our kids, and it’s been less than two years, and we can’t make ends meet."
“It’s unacceptable, and I’m happy that Director Gray is gone,” said Republican representative Matt Hall of Battle Creek, talking about the former UIA director. Hall chairs the Joint Select Committee on the Covid-19 Pandemic. Lawmakers have tried holding the agency accountable all summer, asking about fraud, faster payouts, and people still waiting for their money.
ACTING UIA DIRECTOR
“We’re looking for the needles in the haystack of people who are supposed to get paid, and we’re trying to take the hay out that is the fraud,” said UIA Acting Director Liza Estlund Olson. She joined the agency on November 9 following Steve Gray’s resignation.
Last week, she told lawmakers the state is still seeing about 20,000 new claims a week and has already paid out $26 billion dollars in benefits since the crisis started. A majority, $20.5 billion, went to PUA claims.
But that help may disappear because several programs in the CARES Act expire this month, and so do the federal PUA benefits. That means workers who are not qualified for normal state unemployment will soon lose that funding.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, PUA is only for those who are not eligible for regular claims, meaning they do not qualify for extended benefits.
“Without congressional action, those independent contractors and self-employed workers receiving PUA will not have access to unemployment benefits,” said Estlund Olson. "This inaction could affect hundreds of thousands of Michigan workers.”
Michiganders, especially during a pandemic, need that money for groceries, bills and prescriptions. Thousands are now being laid off for the first time.
Michigan is one of the only states in the country that does not provide 26 weeks of benefits. Those extra six weeks run out on December 31. “And without legislative action by the end of the year, the state moves back down to 20 weeks,” said Estlund Olson. "State lawmakers also need to enact a weekly benefit increase. Our maximum of $362 per week hasn’t been raised in nearly 20 years and ranks near the bottom nationally."
Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) also ends after Christmas. That gives people an extra 13 weeks of benefits after they use 26 from the state. Those on PUA, like Kamer, hope federal and state lawmakers figure out something soon.
“We’re waiting to see what happens and, obviously, praying that we’ll get some help, and if we can hold on until spring -- that’s our busiest time of year -- and hopefully we can get back on our feet again,” she said.
Michigan’s UIA tells me while benefits will not be paid for any weeks after December 26, it will continue to process and pay those that were certified earlier.
RYAN: Do you have any stats for me in terms of how many people are getting benefits on PUA and would lose them?
UIA: 487,000 claimants certified for PUA in the most recent week available.
RYAN: Also I knew there was a 20-week extension?
UIA: Currently, Extended Benefits is available for claimants who exhaust their regular UI or PEUC claim. Extended Benefits triggers on and off based on the state unemployment rate.
RYAN: So, just so I get this right, people had 26/13/20 for a total of 59 weeks, correct?
UIA: This information is available here [gcc01.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]. In addition, because Michigan is currently in a high unemployment period, an additional seven weeks of PUA benefits is available; however, these additional weeks are only payable for weeks prior to the week ending December 26, 2020.
RYAN: Even when the Cares Act expires, would they still have those weeks? Or are some tied to the CARES Act?
UIA: Claimants who have yet to exhaust all benefits provided by the CARES Act will not be paid benefits for any weeks after Dec. 26. The agency will continue to process and pay claims for eligible weeks claimed prior to Dec. 26.
RYAN: It seems like people able to get benefits won’t be eligible anymore unless the law's been changed for the gig/1099 workers.
UIA: Correct. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance was created for individuals who are not traditionally eligible for unemployment benefits such as self-employed, individual contractors, or gig workers. Without an extension of this program or creation of a similar program, benefits for these types of workers will end the week ending December 26, 2020.
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