The COVID-19 pandemic has crippled state and local economies around the country, with Michigan being no exception. About 1.7 million Michigan residents have filed jobless claims since the start of the pandemic, and many of those filers are likely students. In fact, of the almost half a million college students in the state, almost 70 percent work. Many work significant hours on top of their studies: about 41 percent work over twenty hours per week, and about 26 percent work over thirty hours per week.
To maximize the support the state provides to its working students during the COVID-19 recession, Michigan can change state policy to make unemployment insurance (UI) protections more accessible.
Background on Students and UI in Michigan
Many states put limitations around student eligibility for their traditional UI program, and Michigan is no exception. The state unemployment insurance operating rules do not mention students, and their FAQs state that going to college does not necessarily mean that a student cannot receive unemployment benefits. However, some of the restrictions around receiving UI benefits—namely that a worker must earn a base wage of about $3,298 in one quarter, and the requirement that workers must be willing to accept full-time work in order to receive benefits—means that many students may not qualify. And the state has said in subsequent publications that a student would need to be willing to rearrange or drop classes if they find a full-time job to be eligible (unless a student is in a state approved training program, in which case they would not need to modify classes).
The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program has broader eligibility. PUA provides federal dollars for unemployment insurance for those who typically would not qualify under state unemployment insurance programs. Part-time workers, those without sufficient work history, and independent contractors fit into that category, as long as they have lost their job due to the COVID-19 crisis, including through a business closure, a lack of child care, or a direct experience with the virus.
The PUA program provides part-time workers, full-time workers, and students a weekly benefit based on state calculations looking at the recipient’s last year’s tax returns, or a minimum benefit of 50 percent of the median weekly benefit in the state, plus $600 for a limited time (see below). PUA benefits are provided for up to thirty-nine weeks, during the period from January 27 to December 31, 2020.
Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Boosts the Value of UI benefits
Whether a student collects regular state UI or PUA benefits, they will also be eligible for an additional $600 a week from April 2020 through the end of July 2020. This additional benefit—called Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC)—dramatically increases the economic boost for students and enables them to recover any lost earnings they may have been counting on to continue their school. A student who lost their job in March when the state began shutting down, for example, could qualify for seventeen weeks of benefits, combining $160 in PUA and $600 in PUC, resulting in a total of $12,920 federal assistance.
Recommendations to Help Out-of-Work Students
As students in Michigan navigate the pandemic, tens of thousands will face new financial challenges. Streamlining the connection between the state’s UI system and financial aid professionals will ensure that working students can receive benefits they have earned, while students who have lost a job or are from families where a parent has lost a job can access financial aid based on current, not prior, financial status.
First, the state agencies should work with schools’ financial aid offices and student affairs leaders to ensure that students know about the new PUA benefit, providing information to students as they enroll, leave school, and turn to institutions for resources. The Michigan UI office has provided some further clarity on their website, stating that college students can qualify for unemployment insurance.
Second, while the unemployment insurance law in Michigan waives the requirement that individuals must look for work to receive regular state UI benefits while enrolled in vocational courses, the state should expand the eligibility for the waiver. It can clarify that workers who have accumulated credits but are short of completion for a degree, or who want to pursue a certificate and could complete the program within the twenty-week UI period, and who could use time while out of work to go to school full-time, are eligible.
Third, while the record number of Michiganders collecting UI will likely decline as the state reopens, the state should take advantage of the eighteen weeks of additional training benefits under section 421.27(g) of the Michigan Unemployment Act for workers who need a longer time to complete training. With available extended benefits, workers could total as much as fifty-one weeks of support to complete a set of courses.
Fourth, the state could require its public higher education institutions to consider students who are out-of-work and applying for financial aid separately, using their professional judgment flexibility to assess their financial need to ensure that they do not simply look at the prior year’s earnings—the standard approach that will no longer be relevant, given more recent dips in income. The Higher Education Act allows financial aid administrators to make those types of adjustments using their “professional judgment,” and administrators are already able to do so, but encouraging or requiring such assessments could ensure student aid applications get the appropriate review.
Finally, Michigan’s unemployment agency should make UI recipients aware of this financial aid flexibility through communications to recipients. When forty states sent such a letter to schools and workers during the Great Recession, there was an increase in the number of jobless workers accessing Pell Grants.
Together, Michigan’s UI and the PUA program give a certain amount of relief to Michigan students. The state can leverage these benefits and the reach of their agencies to do more for its students.