By KATRIANNA RAY
Capital News Service
LANSING — While much of the United States has slowed to a standstill, many people have had to adapt to working remotely.
They include lawmakers such as state Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, who is working away on 2021’s state budget from home.
“We have to move forward with next year’s budget,” said Whiteford, a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “We have had an economic downturn, so we have to make sure to do really important things with less money and represent everyone in Michigan.”
Many federal and state lawmakers have moved their business to phone-in conference calls and virtual meetings.
For example, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Holly, held a “Tele-Town Hall” on April 16.
Whiteford said, We have had conference calls. I have a team of eight and four fiscal analysts who can look data up when I need it. They can go into computer systems and see what exactly has been spent by any department.
“I also have the entire House of Representatives. There are a lot of people with a lot of experience and knowledge in different areas,” she said.
With a lot of questions, people are looking for answers out in any way they can.
Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis, has seen many residents contacting him for assistance.
“The last few weeks have definitely been interesting,” Miller said. “Quite a few people have reached out because they’re confused. It’s been employees, employers, small businesses, big manufacturing.”
According to Miller, with each representative having his or her phone numbers and emails on their websites, they can be easily contacted.
“It’s been a lot of phone calls, emails, Facebook messages, text messages. Everything you can imagine,” Miller said. “I’ve had people who have never contacted me before about legislative issues who are now doing so because this stuff more directly affects them.
“It’s been a lot of questions, most of which I don’t necessarily know the answer to. I have about as much information as that person does, but they feel I should know information given that I’m in the government,” he said.
The crisis has taken its toll on legislators in another way as well.
State Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, died of COVID-19, as did the sister of another Detroit Democrat, Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo. Meanwhile, Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, has tested positive for COVID-19.
Lawmakers are fielding many inquiries about unemployment benefits.
Whiteford said, “We’ve probably had a thousand calls a week and emails from people who are confused. So many people are having troubles with unemployment insurance because who could have expected such a massive number of people going on unemployment? The entire system crashed.”
The situation is placing a lot of pressure on the state Unemployment Insurance Agency, according to Miller.
Miller said, “With the volume of people, the agency hasn’t been able to process stuff so we’ll do our best to help.
“We’ll transmit it to them, but, oftentimes, they don’t listen to us either and they are struggling, doing the best with what they got,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, almost 1.2 million Michigan residents have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15.
“There’s people at home who haven’t worked in three weeks who have no money coming in,” Whiteford said. “Thank goodness that the federal money came in, but last week? People were in tears not knowing what to do.”
Miller said legislators have the responsibility to the public to represent their districts, and a big part of that is attending community events.
“Community events have all disappeared. It’s a big part of the job as state legislators that has always existed, and nobody really understands how much time that’s put in,”he said. “When all that has disappeared, it has been a very strange, empty time.”
Whiteford said, “It’s a very difficult time for everyone. One of the things I can do is write letters to the governor, advocate and support as much as I can.”
In her phone calls with the citizens in her district, Whiteford tries to remind them that the coronavirus “isn’t about politics.”
“There’s a lot of noise out there that makes this about politics. I tell them to always remember that it’s always about people and what we can do to help our neighbors to the best of our ability,” she said