Business coalition calls on Whitmer to lift restrictions on Michigan offices by April 14

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Business leaders are calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to ease restrictions on offices across Michigan with safety measures in place by April 14, the day emergency rules banning in-office work expire.

The state said Thursday it was "very likely" the rules would be extended past April 14 while the agency creates a permanent plan for employees to return to work places. In the meantime, businesses are welcome to bring employees into the office if it isn't feasible for them to work from home.

The effort to stop the emergency rule extension was announced Thursday by Reopen Michigan Safely, a new business coalition that includes the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other chambers in Grand Rapids, southern Wayne County, Lansing, Saginaw, Battle Creek and Birmingham. 

"Our members across the state are ready to reopen safely," said Rich Studley, president and CEO for the Michigan Chamber of Commerce. "We know from 12 months of experience that we can do this by working together.”

Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley is part of a coalition of chambers asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reopen offices with safety measures by April 14, 2021.

The group argued businesses were losing jobs permanently because of the restrictions from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, whose six-month order prohibiting most in-person work in offices expires April 14. The state Department of Health and Human Services also has a ban on nonessential in-office work that can be done from home, but that order is not as long-lasting as the prospect of another six-month extension from MIOSHA. 

Whitmer's office on Thursday said the current prohibition on nonessential in-person work is an effort "to maximize safety unless it's absolutely necessary for employees to be in the office." A work group consisting of labor leaders and businesses will make recommendations on how to safely re-engage at offices, said Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Whitmer. 

"We are all anxious to return to life as normal, and that’s why our administration is laser-focused on ramping up vaccine distribution and support small businesses to help us get there," Leddy said. 

The coalition on Thursday questioned the intent of Whitmer's creation of a state work group to study the issue, noting it's a bit "late in the game" and businesses already have plans to return safely.

"We have not created work groups for any of the other industries," said Rich Baker, president and CEO for the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. "... We're ready. Businesses are ready. I hope it's an authentic effort, but I do kind of wonder about that since we haven’t used this for any other industry.”

MIOSHA said it welcomed feedback from businesses, but argued its policy does "not prohibit in-person work."

"Rather, they require employers to determine whether remote work for employees is feasible to help ensure that COVID-19 transmission is mitigated to the maximum extent possible," said Sean Egan, director of Michigan COVID-19 workplace safety for the agency. 

The actual language of the order requires an employer to "create a policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely."

The state, using the work group announced earlier this week, will devise a permanent plan to "return to in-person office work," Egan said. Even with the emergency rules still in place, it's likely more businesses could bring back employees where its infeasible for them to work from home, but companies have expressed "confusion" over the emergency rule, he said.

"MIOSHA’s not making this determination for employers," Egan said, noting it was the company that would make the decision and explain it in its preparedness and response plan.

"If they have considerations on efficiency and creativity those are things they can take into account," he said. 

Businesses and their workers increasingly are feeling isolated and inhibited by the restrictions on in-office work, said Veronica Horn of the Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce. 

"It’s hard to innovate and collaborate at kitchen tables," Horn said.

Additionally, cities are losing considerable income tax revenue because workers no longer are commuting to cities where those taxes would be collected, the coalition said. 

In Lansing, where 20,000 state workers are located on a given day, an estimated 15% of downtown businesses have closed over the last 12 months and the downtown could lose up to 25% of dining, retail and entertainment businesses because of the extended office closure, said Tim Daman, president and CEO of the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

Businesses, Daman said, are looking for "leadership that has a vision and plan" for bringing private employees back to the workplace and state government employees back. 

"Our critical infrastructure employers and I think all of us have learned to live with and operate within this COVID world," Daman said. "…We are more than confident that our offices will be able to implement those same precautions.”