Business groups ‘extremely disappointed’ Whitmer administration extended COVID-19 office restrictions

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Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration extended COVID-19 Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Act (MIOSHA) emergency business place rules that would have expired Wednesday. The extension effectively bans most in-person office work, business groups say.

Whitmer cited Michigan’s high COVID-19 case numbers for her decision.

The rule, originally issued Oct. 14, is extended another six months but can be revised or withdrawn at any time. A news release said: “While in-person work is permitted when remote work is not feasible, remote work is recommended as a strategy to minimize in-person contacts and is included in guidance from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and Federal [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] to protect employees in the workplace.”

The rule states: “The employer shall create a policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely.”

Michigan Chamber President & CEO Rich Studley told The Center Square in a phone interview the coalition was “extremely disappointed” with Whitmer’s extension after Whitmer picked Michigan Chamber members for a workgroup discussing the extension.

“It’s pretty obvious the administration wasn’t sincere about listening to the concerns of employers,” Studley said, who pointed out office outbreaks are only the sixth-highest source.

The Reopen Michigan Safely Coalition is pushing Whitmer to “end the office ban.”

The group, comprised of 58 business groups, contends the ban on in-person work is decimating downtown foot traffic statewide on which local businesses rely. For example, Lansing has 47 restaurants and 19 retail stores, and an already 20% storefront vacancy rate. The state has 27,000 people currently working from home, according to the Department for Technology, Management and Budget.

Studley said the current rule requires employers to determine it’s impossible for workers to work from home. While technology has eased remote working, all businesses don’t thrive via Zoom or conference calls.

“For several weeks now, the administration has been suggesting the rule doesn’t say what it says,” Studley said, comparing the characterization to “misinformation.”

While the rule was understandable at the beginning of the pandemic, employers know how to keep customers and employees safe, therefore the rule is no longer necessary, Studley said.

He contended Whitmer’s administration for over a year has “tried to micromanage the daily lives of 10 million Michiganders.”

In a statement, Whitmer explained the reasons behind her stance.

“When employers maintain a safe workplace, that gives workers and consumers the confidence to keep our economy moving,” the governor continued.

“But at this juncture, with our high positivity numbers, it's really important that we extend for another six months so that we have the ability to work through what these protocols look like and get people back into the workplace when it's safe to do so with the right protocols,” Whitmer said.

The state’s COVID-19 outbreak tracker shows that the leading total outbreak sources are K-12 programs (301), construction (141), and long-term care (120).

Next are youth programs (91), retail (81), office settings (45), and combined bars and restaurants (44), the seventh-highest recorded outbreak source. Meanwhile, retail stores have had nearly double the outbreaks (81).

“As we work to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the rules reinforce the importance of keeping workplaces safe for employees from COVID-19 transmission,” COVID-19 Workplace Safety Director Sean Egan said in a statement. “We want employers to create a safe work environment for their employees, which is why we will continue to work with employees and businesses to help them understand how to safely stay open.”





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