Michigan Works! offices would close under proposed federal rules

ESCANABA — Proposed changes to federal rules regulating the way Michigan Works! staff are hired could drastically cut services from the employment agency across the Upper Peninsula and force the closure of most local Michigan Works! locations.

“We would probably go from a couple dozen staff down to maybe two in the Upper Peninsula. So it would really impact transportation, (for) those with transportation issues, they might have to travel one, two or three hours instead of something in their own county or own town,” said Bill Raymond, CEO of Upper Peninsula Michigan Works!

Both Dickinson and Iron counties now have Michigan Works! offices, in Iron Mountain and Iron River, respectively.

The change proposed by the U.S. Employment and Training Administration, which is part of the Department of Labor, would adjust rules for staffing under the Wagner-Peyser Act, the 1933 law that established the nationwide system of employment services that state workforce agencies like Michigan Works! provide. It would require that all Michigan Works! employees are state merit-staff employees.

These employees are hired and retained through a merit process outlined by the federal government, which includes training to ensure high-quality performance, severing employment relationships with employees who demonstrate inadequate performance that cannot be corrected, and assuring employees are protected against coercion for partisan political purposes as well.

“What the Feds are trying to do, they’re making a distinction between state merit staff for state employees and local merit staff. So all of our employees in the U.P. are local merit staff and some of it’s a union designation, some not, but they work for an organization that has a merit-based wage system and we have that locally,” Raymond said.

Michigan is one of only a handful of demonstration states, which have been authorized to use staff for employment services that are not state merit-staff employees since the 1990s. However, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration adopted a rule in February of 2020 expanding the ability to use non-state-merit-staff to all employment services systems across the nation.

The decision, which took effect as the COVID-19 pandemic slammed unemployment agencies across the country, gave employment service agencies more flexibility in hiring. However, the Department of Labor has decided that moving all employment services agencies to state-merit staff would align employment services staff with the Unemployment Insurance Agency, which relied heavily on employment services providers in the heat of the pandemic.

“I think everybody’s scrambling in the aftermath of the pandemic, and of course it’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, hopefully, so they re trying to figure out how does the Unemployment Insurance Agency get the help they need in those times of high chaos,” said Raymond, who noted that 500 Michigan Works! employees from across Michigan — many of whom were from the U.P. — stepped up to held the UIA.

If the change goes through, the number of Michigan Works! employees would drop to just 100 people to staff the 99 service centers across the state, but that doesn’t necessarily mean each center would get one employee. More populated areas that have larger caseloads would likely need additional employees, forcing less populated areas to accommodate. Raymond believes this would force 12 of the U.P. s 14 service centers to close their doors, with one remaining service center located in Marquette and another to be in either Sault Ste. Marie or the Houghton/Hancock area.

“So if you were in, say, Manistique, you’d have to drive to either Marquette or Sault Ste. Marie.”

U.P. residents who are interested in commenting on the proposed rule change can do so through today by going to https://bit.ly/CommentWP.


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