Q&A: How Michigan Works is helping job seekers during COVID-19 crisis

Like businesses and other entities, Michigan Works has had to quickly adapt its operation to comply with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay Home, Stay Safe order. The restrictions are an effort to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, which causes the sometimes deadly COVID-19.

In an effort to keep people at home, many businesses deemed non-essential — ranging from beauty salons to theaters — have had to close operations, resulting in thousands of people being furloughed from their jobs. Other jobs that can be done temporarily from home have also disappeared as companies have scaled back staff because of a drop-off in business related to the public health crisis. As a result, unemployment has skyrocketed. Michigan reported 108,710 unemployment claims were filed between March 16-21 — up from an average of about 5,000 claims per week, according to news reports. 

Still, there is a growing demand for workers at businesses deemed crucial during this crisis, such as health care facilities and food retailers, along with manufacturers that make products for essential industries.

Brittany Lenertz, talent solutions director for West Michigan Works!, answered our questions about the recent changes at the workforce agency and explained how they will impact job seekers. 

The Lakeshore: How has West Michigan Works! pivoted in helping people find employment as Gov. Whitmer's Stay Home, Stay Safe order has resulted in the temporary closure of many businesses?

Brittany Lenertz: To keep everyone safe and healthy, we have moved to virtual services by phone and online. We’ve worked at gathering the most recent job openings and keeping them updated on our website. WMW! staff is reaching out to job seekers to make sure they have the resources they need to help with their job search. We have made many of our normally in-person services available on our website, including helpful tip sheets and even virtual workshops. 
TL: How is West Michigan Works! available to support people who are newly unemployed?

BL: We are available in all our offices by phone to help them walk through their next steps, whether that’s advice on how to file for unemployment or help with community resources for the unprecedented situations many people find themselves in. We’re working to direct them to resources they can access for help with the job search. 
TL: If someone wants to find a job in a sector deemed essential, what should they be doing?

BL: Employers are still hiring! Many need workers to meet increased demand created by restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Hundreds of jobs, full and part time, permanent and temporary, have been added to our Weekly Hot Jobs list.
TL: Are there job openings for people with underlying health issues, such as asthma or diabetes, that can be done safely from home or another location? 

BL: There are jobs but it's difficult to give specifics because it really has to do with an individuals’ specific skills. One way to search for these jobs is to include keywords such as “remote” and “freelance” to find positions that might be appropriate for someone with pre-existing conditions. 
TL: What are you telling people as far as this is going to be new normal for West Michigan Works for the indefinite future?

At this time, we’re helping people virtually and not currently meeting with customers in person.  Like so many others, we are doing our absolute best to pivot as quickly as possible and provide the best service we can in the midst of really difficult situations. Because no one knows for sure what the next few weeks look like, it’s hard to know what the new normal will be.  We will continue to work to keep everyone healthy and safe while also making more and more of our services available virtually. One thing is certain: We are committed to continuing to help our customers — both job seekers and employers — in the midst of the uncertainty. We have incredible staff who are creative and willing to change and adapt quickly to make sure we’re meeting our communities’ needs to the very best of our ability. 

If you have more questions, you can reach out to West Michigan Works! at [email protected]

This article is part of The Lakeshore, a new featured section of Rapid Growth focused on West Michigan's Lakeshore region. Over the coming months, Rapid Growth will be expanding to cover the complex challenges in this community by focusing on the organizations, projects, programs and individuals working to improve conditions and solve problems for their region. As the coverage continues, look for The Lakeshore publication, coming in 2020.
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