Lawmakers OK bills to extend unemployment, change nursing home policy

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — The Republican-led Legislature and Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have reached compromises on an array of COVID-19 policies from unemployment to business protections from lawsuits that will be put into effect by law instead of executive orders.

In a session that ended in the early hours of Wednesday, the Michigan House and Senate approved more than a dozen bills that, among other things, would extend unemployment benefits to 26 weeks, delay deadlines for license and state ID renewals, as well as allow for electronic public meetings and electronic signatures during the pandemic.

The Legislature also approved bills providing liability protections to health care workers, businesses and employees during the pandemic as well as separate legislation that changes nursing home policy on COVID-19 admissions and visits. Whitmer has opposed earlier versions of the liability legislation and fought Republican legislators and a few Democratic lawmakers on changing nursing home policies before making recent shifts.

Whitmer is expected to sign most of the bills, but her office noted she still is reviewing those connected to nursing homes.

The House also passed a concurrent resolution 68-33 giving the Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic the power to subpoena witnesses and administer oaths in the committee's review of the state's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Senate must also pass the resolution for it to take effect.

The Legislature spent most of Tuesday negotiating with the governor over the bills, specifically on legislation related to unemployment aid that the Senate had tie-barred to the liability protections. 

At about 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said a deal had been reached with the Democratic administration. The House session concluded shortly after 3:30 a.m. when the chamber passed the liability and unemployment aid bills with the tie bar removed.

Most of the bills passed Wednesday sailed through by wide margins. Some Democratic lawmakers argued the legislative provisions should extend beyond the end of the year and go into March.

Whitmer's office said the bills essentially codify some of what she had decreed under executive orders that have since been ruled invalid, but she still expressed concerns similar to those voiced by Democratic lawmakers about the duration of the bills. 

"It's good the Legislature took a step forward to provide immediate, temporary relief for families — but the bills just kick the can down the road, and the Legislature needs to take further action to make this permanent," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Wednesday.  

Whitmer intends to sign the liability bills, but Brown noted the liability protections require a business owner to be in compliance with state COVID-19 rules. 

The legislation came after the Michigan Supreme Court encouraged Whitmer and the Legislature to work together to put COVID-19 protections in place after deeming the 1945 law underpinning the governor's emergency orders unconstitutional. The court unanimously also ruled the governor flouted a 1976 law by not getting the Legislature's approval to extend the emergency declaration past April 30.

The state health department has issued several epidemic orders that have taken the place of Whitmer's pre-existing orders on mask usage, restaurant capacity and employee health screenings. But the department did not take action on unemployment, electronic meetings and several other issues that appear to have fallen outside the department's authority.

Unemployment aid

The unemployment bill would create a six-week extension of the maximum duration of jobless assistance, pushing it from 20 weeks to 26 through the end of the year. The House approved it unanimously. 

The bill also continues work share programs through the Unemployment Insurance Agency and waives requirements that an individual must be actively seeking employment if an employer confirms a layoff is temporary.

A separate bill allows the agency's retirees to return to the agency to help process claims as the agency has struggled to process jobless aid requests in a timely manner since the pandemic began.

Nursing homes

Other legislation passed Wednesday would stop nursing homes from caring for elderly individuals with COVID-19 unless the facilities can provide proof of a "designated area" for them and the appropriate level of care. The bill would require the state health department to develop a process for approving recovery centers and designated areas for residents infected with COVID-19.

The state also would be required to develop indoor and outdoor visitation policies for nursing homes. The legislation passed unanimously.

Another bill, introduced by Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, would require nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to submit reports with a variety of data including the number of COVID-19 cases, deaths and recoveries, staff shortages, number of tests conducted and the number of isolation deaths. The bill passed unanimously. 

In an emotional speech on the floor, Love said the legislation assured nursing home residents and staff that they had not been forgotten over the past seven months.

"The legislators in the state of Michigan will do all we can to help you through this pandemic," she said.

Liability protections

The liability legislation would shield businesses from some legal claims over COVID-19 exposure if they were following federal, state and local regulations to prevent exposure among clients and staff. It would require employees to stay home if they were exposed to or tested positive for the virus and protect the employees from adverse action. 

A separate bill would protect health care providers or facilities from liability for injury or death if they're providing services in support of the pandemic response. The bill, which applies to the time period between March 29 through July 14, includes an exception in cases where willful misconduct or gross negligence can be proven. 

The liability bills largely passed by wide margins in the House, with the bill protecting employees earning unanimous support. 

Another bill approved during the marathon session would allow those with other licenses — such as nurses, physician assistants and pharmacists — to administer COVID-19 tests through June 30. The bill passed unanimously.

Electronic meetings

Local government would be allowed to hold electronic meetings under separate legislation, an immediate concern among municipalities that had to cancel meetings Monday night in light of the Supreme Court decision. The bill, which passed the House 85-18, allows for electronic meetings for any reason through Jan.1 and in the case of an emergency, military duty or medical reason through the end of 2021.

The House also passed a variety of bills aimed at making it possible to accept electronic signatures for some wills, deeds and forms. The chamber also extended the validity of vehicle registration, driver's licenses and state IDs that were due to expire after March 2020. Those provisions largely passed by wide margins and, in some cases, unanimously.