Whitmer proposes $3B in extra pay for front-line workers, police, other 'heroes'



Michiganders working in elementary school classrooms, at grocery store checkout lines, driving city buses and serving in any number of other vital jobs amid the ongoing pandemic may be in line for a payday.


Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will propose $500 million in one-time "hero pay" benefits intended for a yet-undefined group of Michigan workers and $50 million for similar payments to law enforcement officers, firefighters, first responders and correctional officers. That is in addition to $1.65 billion for teacher and school staff retention, first reported Sunday by the Free Press, she will propose when she presents her 2023 budget recommendations this week to state lawmakers along with extra billions to be spent in the current financial year.


With another $265 million slated to continue raises for direct care workers, $200 million for state employee raises and more suggestions, the total of proposed payments or tax savings tops $3 billion.


“Through a once-in-a-century pandemic, we saw Michiganders who serve in law enforcement and frontline workers in so many different kinds of businesses and facilities step up,” Whitmer said in a statement.


“Countless workers ... made heroic sacrifices, putting their own health and safety on the line to ensure the rest of us were safe and had the supplies we needed to care for our families. They had our backs. We should have theirs.”


The governor's office provided few specifics about her plan. Details on who exactly would be eligible for payments and how much each person may receive were not provided.


Here's a breakdown of what is known about the proposed payments and their funding sources:

  • $1.65 billion for teacher and school support staff retention from the state School Aid Fund. This represents funding that would be spent through 2025.

  • $150 million stipend for student teachers from the state School Aid Fund.

  • $500 million in "hero pay" for as-yet undefined "front-line workers." The governor's office suggested this may include, but isn't limited to, grocery store employees or bus drivers. The money comes from federal pandemic relief.

  • $265 million to continue direct care worker raises, using a combination of money from the state General Fund and the federal Medicaid match.

  • $200 million for a state employee pay raise, using a combination of federal money, the state General Fund and state restricted funds.

  • $135 million for behavioral health care workers from the state General Fund.

  • $60 million for other nursing home staff from a combination of the state General Funds and federal Medicaid match.

  • $50 million for law enforcement officers, firefighters, first responders and correctional officers, using a combination of federal pandemic relief money and the state General Fund.


Whitmer's office considers savings from a proposed expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit as comparable extra pay. They estimate the change represents $262 million in state tax rebates for qualifying families.


Most of the proposals would likely be one-time payments, but when that money would go to workers is unclear. Those details will be part of budget negotiations and while the governor recommends budget priorities, it is up to the state Legislature to ultimately craft the state's budget.


Despite the catastrophic health and economic impacts of the pandemic, Michigan has billions of one-time dollars to spend thanks to federal COVID-19 relief funds and an unexpected state budget surplus. As Whitmer telegraphed during her recent State of the State address, she wants to give some of that money directly to workers and use more of it to jump-start the economy.


Whitmer's office noted the AFL-CIO and two unions that represent many of the workers in line for potential payments support the sweeping proposal.


"While many people were able to stay home, grocery store workers showed up every day from the beginning of this pandemic to make sure Michigan families had the food and supplies they needed," said John Cakmakci, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local 951, in a statement provided by the governor's office.


"Our members have paid out of pocket for child care and protective gear, and they have lost sick time, and in some cases their health and even their lives. They deserve to be acknowledged and rewarded for their efforts and we thank Gov. Whitmer for doing so."


The proposals represent obvious political benefits for the governor as well. Nine months out from the general election, voters are generally dissatisfied with the direction of the country and President Joe Biden. There's considerable frustration with inflation as well, as prices for goods like gasoline and food continue to increase.


The governor is also the subject of GOP attacks over law enforcement and the idea that she supports "defunding the police." In 2020, Whitmer said she supports the "spirit" of defunding the police in terms of sending resources elsewhere. But she later told the Free Press, "I don't believe police should be defunded" and "I support rebuilding communities and rebuilding them in a way that creates real opportunity in an equitable and just manner."


GOP legislative leaders have used federal pandemic relief funding as a negotiating chip, at times delaying sending out money intended to stave off evictions and help struggling families, in an effort to achieve political goals.

However, GOP leaders largely supported the governor's tax rebates and reductions when she proposed them during the State of the State address.


Every year, lawmakers push back on some aspects of the governor's budget proposal while championing their own ideas. Legislative leaders and members of the governor's administration generally meet — frequently behind closed doors — to hammer out the specific nature of the final budget details.


Whitmer's team is scheduled to present its budget ideas this year at 11 a.m. Wednesday during a joint hearing of the House and Senate appropriations committees.