ST. PAUL, Minn. (FOX 9) - The latest safety net for unemployed workers kicked in Wednesday when Minnesota officials said they extended jobless benefits for an additional 13 weeks.
The extra payments were among three pieces of unemployment relief in the federal stimulus law approved in March. The state's economic development commissioner, Steve Grove, said Minnesota was among the first states in the country to start providing the additional weeks.
As of Wednesday, 464,000 Minnesotans have filed for unemployment in the past month as Gov. Tim Walz ordered thousands of businesses to close in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
"It’s not a fun thing to drive down a main street right now in a small town," Grove said during a virtual hearing of the Senate Jobs committee. "It's sad."
The governor's stay-at-home order lasts through May 4, though he has left the door open to returning some people to work after that.
About 8,000 Minnesotans have exhausted their unemployment benefits or are about to, Grove said, making them eligible for the 13 additional weeks. To get them, workers must simply apply for weekly benefits online as they usually would.
The federal stimulus law also included $600 per week in extra payments through July 31, on top of state benefits. And, for the first time, it made freelancers and self-employed people eligible for payments.
But the system has not helped everyone.
No state in the country has started paying self-employed workers. Delays in federal guidance are the reason, Grove said.
The workers, including hair stylists, have been forced out of work since mid-March and still haven't been able to collect unemployment. Lawmakers have been feeling the heat from constituents in their districts and peppered Grove with questions on Wednesday.
"I’ve had probably 20 conversations with self-employed people today alone who are freaking out," said state Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, who said he knew of one worker who'd committed suicide in his district. "I'm afraid of that, if we don't get answers to these people."
Grove encouraged self-employed workers and freelancers to apply on the state's unemployment insurance website, even though they'll be denied. Their application will remain in the system and the state will contact them once the program is ready, he said.
Meanwhile, others are benefiting from the new unemployment rules.
The combination of state benefits and the additional $600 means that for workers who typically earn $1,200 a week or less, they're making more from unemployment than from their jobs, Grove said.
"This is a very real challenge," Grove said. "While of course we’re grateful for that money from the federal government and are doing everything we can to make it available to Minnesotans, it does create a weird incentive structure."
Grove said his biggest concern is for lower-paying critical sector jobs, like personal care attendants, who need workers but might not be able to find any.
Draheim said business owners were growing concerned.
"I’ve had six employers tell me their employees are handing them letters saying they’re afraid of the COVID-19 and they want to go on unemployment because they can make more on unemployment than working," he said.
The state Department of Employment and Economic Development has launched an online portal for people to make suggestions about how businesses could safely reopen. About 400 people have written in with ideas, Grove said.
Wednesday, Senate Republicans launched their own competing portal called "Open Up Minnesota" to seek suggestions. GOP senators have called on Walz to quickly lay out plans for reopening the economy.