Whitmer vetoes bill forgiving COVID-related workplace violations

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has vetoed a bill that would have forgiven Michigan businesses their first workplace safety violation related to COVID-19 and refunded companies that had already paid their COVID-related fines. 

The bill would cause the Michigan Occupational Safety and  Administration to "fall below the minimum standard required by federal law," which would have "disastrous consequences" for the state, Whitmer wrote in her veto letter. 

"When a state fails to maintain the minimum standard, it loses control over enforcement of workplace standards," the Democratic governor wrote.

"That would mean higher penalties, an end to voluntary safety outreach services, and the loss of Michigan stakeholder voices in our occupational health and safety program. I will not let that happen."

The Republican-backed legislation came in response to complaints about overly harsh workplace safety enforcement during the pandemic, including the publication through the state emergency operations center of businesses cited. The center had been used primarily for critical COVID-19 updates at the height of the pandemic. 

Opponents also have argued that Whitmer's executive orders — which were ruled unconstitutional Oct. 2, 2020 — served as the sole basis or an underlying basis for finding a violation existed. When the executive orders were overturned, businesses argued the cases also should be thrown out.

The agency refused to do so, arguing that the violations were issued under MIOSHA’s general duty clause that gives broad authority to issue fines for perceived hazards. The COVID-19 hazards, the agency said, were determined based on more than Whitmer’s executive orders. They also had roots in guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and federal workplace safety rules. 

The Senate passed the bill vetoed by Whitmer a day after a Detroit News report on the dismissal of a COVID-related workplace citation at the City of Port Huron offices. The dismissal came after a MIOSHA inspector indicated in a deposition that the executive orders were used as a basis for the citations and acknowledged that he'd burned notes associated with the case that weren't in the official case file. 

Of the 235,000 employers MIOSHA oversees, 532 were cited for COVID-related offenses during the pandemic, according to the agency. As of mid-October, 322 of the 532 complaints are closed, 61 are being appealed and 149 are open until the employer corrects the violation, appeals the citation or pays a penalty.

In her Friday veto letter, Whitmer noted the state had given significant aid to small businesses during the pandemic to help them weather financial stresses and she expressed hope they could do more in the coming months. 

"Maintaining a flexible and responsive occupational health and safety program is a key part of Michigan’s success," Whitmer wrote. "Because (House Bills) 4501 would undermine those goals, I am vetoing it."

eleblanc@detroitnews.com