As mask mandate ends, new Michigan workplace rules issued

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan workplace regulators filed new COVID-19 emergency rules Tuesday that largely align state rules with federal workplace guidance and let most employers "use their best judgment" on pandemic protocols. 

The rules allow employers — with the exception of health care facilities — to decide whether to keep in place mask mandates, social distancing and daily health screenings, according to a statement from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. The department added that it "strongly encourages" workplaces to follow federal workplace standards. 

The new Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules align with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration emergency temporary standard and largely focus on protocol for health care settings exposed to a known or suspected COVID-19 patient. 

The changes to the rules come the same day the state lifted its remaining mask mandate and gathering restrictions. 

“With our state at full capacity, we can boost our economic jump-start and ensure businesses can emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever while keeping their workers safe," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said in a statement. 

The announcement freed most businesses to operate under their own rules after months of state restrictions. 

“We’ve said since the beginning that small business owners know best how to run their businesses," said Brian Calley, president for the Small Business Association of Michigan. "The restoration of the autonomy of small business owners to establish workplace practices of their choosing is an important step toward recovery. It moves Michigan more in line with the mainstream across the country.”

Last month, MIOSHA eased its rules to exempt fully vaccinated individuals for distancing and mask requirements. Office workers were able to return for in-person work on May 24. 

The rules have been the target of criticism by some business groups, which argued against the agency's attempt to implement permanent COVID-19 restrictions and criticized provisions that kept office workers from in-person work, when feasible, for more than a year. 

Additionally, several businesses pushed back on fines and citations they received under Whitmer's executive orders that were overturned by the Michigan Supreme Court in October. 

With the new rules filed Tuesday, MIOSHA essentially rescinded its current emergency rules — implemented May 24 and time-limited through October and replaced them with new emergency rules that restart the two, six-month extension maximum for emergency rules. 

The new emergency rules will be in place at least through Dec. 22. 

“We will continue to provide critical workplace protections more focused on areas of increased COVID-19 risk,” said Sean Egan, director for Michigan COVID-19 Workplace Safety.

“In non-health care settings, it’s important that all employers recognize that they have a general duty to provide a safe workplace.”

The June 10 federal guidelines for healthcare workers, to which the state rules defer, require healthcare facilities to develop a written plan to stop the spread of the virus, provide workers with N95 masks, enforce 6 feet of distance between employees and, when possible, place barriers between employees.

The federal health care rules also require employers to to give workers paid time off to get vaccinated or, if an employee contracts COVID-19, give them up to $1,400 per week in paid time off unless their work can be done remotely. 

Federal OSHA guidance for non-healthcare workplace settings recommends, but does not require, physical distancing and mask usage among unvaccinated employees. 

The guidance also recommends employers maintain good ventilation systems and routine cleaning practices and have a reporting system in place for employee complaints.