House passes bill granting penalty forgiveness to some businesses fined under COVID rules

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Michigan House on Tuesday approved legislation that would forgive fines assessed on some businesses found to be in violation of the state's emergency COVID-19 workplace rules. 

The legislation by state Rep. Timothy Beson, R-Bay City, would stop the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration from issuing fines for first-time offenses if the employer takes corrective action. 

The bill also requires the state to forgive or reimburse employers who paid civil fines for a violation that occurred under executive orders later overturned Oct. 2 by the Michigan Supreme Court or fines issued under any current orders if they're ruled unconstitutional in the future.

"They should not be punished for trying to navigate unprecedented times with little or shifting guidance," Beson said Tuesday.

The bill passed the House 74-34 with the support of 17 Democratic lawmakers. The bill moves to the Senate next.

The legislation could have a "significant fiscal impact" on MIOSHA because it would decrease revenue obtained through the workplace fines and create liabilities related to reimbursement, according to a House Fiscal Agency analysis.

As of Monday, the agency had 96 closed COVID-19-related cases totaling $259,200 in fines, 112 open cases assessing $364,200 in fines and 29 cases under appeal totaling $119,300 in fines, the House agency said.

Michigan businesses and GOP lawmakers have pushed back on some MIOSHA emergency restrictions and fines, especially those issued prior to the Michigan Supreme Court's ruling that the law underpinning the governor's emergency authority was unconstitutional. The ruling effectively overturned executive orders issued between April 30 and the Oct. 2 decision. 

As recently as March, 11 businesses and a city were fighting more than $50,000 in COVID-19 workplace fines issued prior to the Supreme Court ruling.

But MIOSHA has argued that the citations issued prior to the Supreme Court decision were based on an existing general duty clause that was supported by not only the governor’s overturned emergency orders, but also U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and federal workplace guidelines. 

And Gov. Gretchen Whitmer maintained Monday that the agency had not penalized businesses trying to do the right thing. Instead, she said, the state had focused on those that "flouted" state rules and put people at risk of catching COVID-19. 

In supporting the bill, Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, noted the bill recognized the need for forgiveness in cases like the governor's — a reference to Whitmer's violation of health department orders at a restaurant Saturday.

"If that would have happened to a business in my district, that's thousands of dollars in fines on you," Johnson said. "The good news for this individual is she happens to the be the governor of Michigan. No fines, no citations, no penalties. 

"Colleagues, the question before you today is, should the businesses in our district get the same treatment as the governor?" Johnson asked.

On Sunday, Whitmer apologized after she was photographed at East Lansing's Landshark Bar & Grill seated with a group of more than six people. The seating arrangement was in violation of her own health department orders that limit tables to a maximum of six people. 

Whitmer issued orders Monday that reversed the rule beginning June 1.

The Ingham County Health Department reported having received a report about table capacity violations at Landshark, but declined enforcement action because “non-critical restaurant complaints are initially treated as education/consultation for the owner/manager," the Associated Press reported.