‘In Survival Mode’: Michigan Business Owners Say Boosted Benefits Disrupting Industries

by Scott McClallen


Michigan business owners say federal $300/week boosted unemployment benefits are exacerbating a worker shortage partly caused by COVID-19 fears.

Roy Baldwin, owner of Baldwin’s Smokehouse Barbecue in Buena Vista Township, says COVID-19, rising food prices, and a worker shortage have hit his store hard. Since opening his store in 2019, he says food product prices have doubled.

“It’s a lot easier to stay at home and collect more than you would make at work,” Baldwin said. “We’re in survival mode.”

Jeremy Manthei of Manthei Veneer, based in Petoskey, is a third-generation owner. He has 290 employees and pays an average of $18.87/hour for blue-collar workers, plus profit sharing and full benefits.

Out of the businesses’ 75-year history, he says this year is by far the most difficult.

He has 15% of positions open, and he’s so strapped for workers he plans to source them from Puerto Rico — 2,151 miles away.

There are 33,000 people in town and 1,144 open jobs in Emmet County, according to Indeed.

“Every single restaurant seems like it’s reducing hours,” he said. “There are help-wanted signs everywhere.”

Manthei said potential workers spam him with job applications to fulfill work-search requirements but don’t return calls. The Unemployment Insurance Agency is meant to cut these workers off state benefits, but he says they’re not being held accountable.

Lisa Lunsford, the CEO of GS3 Global, an auto manufacturer, said 35% of her workforce hadn’t returned post-COVID-19.

In Bangor, Luke Barber of Barber packaging said he’s scrambled to substitute low-skilled labor positions with technology. His long-term concerns are that the labor market in Michigan is shrinking, and when boosted unemployment benefits end in September, many low-skilled jobs might not exist anymore.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has refused to end the state’s use of $300/week boosted unemployment, despite the GOP’s push. About 26 states, including Michigan’s neighbors, have ended the benefit.

Director Of Legislative Affairs at the Michigan Department of Labor Todd Cook said by 2030, Michigan will see more death than births. One study pins Michigan losing 13,000 people in 2019.

Cook said factors of the worker shortage include lack of childcare and fear of contracting COVID-19.

Tony Daoud is a manager of multiple Sunoco gas stations. For the last year and a half, they’ve struggled to find workers, pushing them to close stores early and close at least one store completely.

Some days, Daoud doesn’t know if his workers will show up or if gas will get delivered, thanks to a truck driver shortage.

“Every morning, are we going to have fuel for the weekend? Are we going to have fuel for the day? I don’t know… When the fuel truck pulls in, I get so excited,” he said. “Somebody showed up to work; this is great!”

Rep. David Martin, R-Davison, agreed.

“It’s sad that in the United States of America, the richest country on the face of the earth, I can’t get something when I want something,” Martin said.

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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.








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