Workgroup tasked with making return-to-office plans to begin meeting Thursday

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

A workgroup established to make recommendations to the governor for a return to in-person office work will begin meeting Thursday and is expected to meet for a total of six weeks.

The Return-to-Office Workgroup will give recommendations on a rolling basis to the governor that will be used to amend Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency rules that are set to be renewed another six months on April 14. 

Under current rules, employers must develop policies related to workers who are in-person and those who work from home, with preference given to remote work if feasible. Feasibility is largely dependent on a company's economic and technical capabilities to enable and sustain remote work, said Sean Egan, director of Michigan COVID-19 workplace safety for the agency.

MIOSHA has argued the current policy does not prohibit in-person work and, in fact, it's likely companies could bring more workers in if they adjust their plans and have safety protocols in place. So far, the agency has issued no citations related to remote work violations. 

But they've encountered pressure to loosen restrictions further, as business chambers and leaders launched a coalition earlier this month to call on the governor to ease the policy so that Michigan employers are able to bring more people back into the office. 

Whitmer said last week that she hopes to start bringing workers back into office spaces in the coming weeks, potentially ahead of the April 14 expiration of the agency's emergency rules. 

The agency is expected to extend emergency rules past April 14, but said the rules could be adjusted based on workgroup recommendations, COVID spread or vaccination rates.

"Just because you can extend it for six months, doesn’t mean it will stay the same for six month," Egan said. "... As this continues to change and move, we can update those rules over the summer.”

Unlike state health department guidance, MIOSHA workplace rules aren't likely to rely on the square footage of a given office space to determine eligibility for bringing workers back. What is more likely to dictate those allowances will be the company's ability to social distance employees and mandate masking. 

Vaccination rates also may be a focus of employers as they move toward reopening, Egan said. 

"We’re going to continue to evaluate as we move forward," Egan said. 

The workgroup includes representatives from state agencies, unions, municipalities and businesses such as Dow Chemical Company, Steelcase and Lear Corporation.

Reopen Michigan Safely, the workgroup launched earlier this month to push for office reopening plans, expressed doubt about the work group when businesses already have safe return plans in the works. 

"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.”

eleblanc@detroitnews.com