Michigan business groups calls on Whitmer to OK in-person office work by April 14


Nearly a year after the COVID-19 pandemic, business leaders argue they know how to work in-person safely.

On Thursday, newly formed business coalition Reopen Michigan Safely called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to allow the return of office work by April. 14, the day the Michigan Occupational Safety and Administration (MIOSHA) emergency rules prohibiting most in-person work expire.

The coalition is comprised of eight state and local Michigan Chambers of Commerce.

“It is time to safely reopen Michigan for business,” Michigan Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Rich Studley said.

Studley cited widespread COVID-19 vaccines and continuing dropping COVID-19 cases in arguing that the state government should be proactive in saving jobs and businesses.

In a month and 10 days, Whitmer’s MIOSHA six-month order banning much in-person work will expire. If extended another six-months, business leaders worry for the economic health of downtowns as well as jobs they fear will permanently disappear.

The MIOSHA emergency rules set safety protocols and appear to prohibit most in-person work.

The rule states: “The employer shall create a policy prohibiting in-person work for employees to the extent that their work activities can feasibly be completed remotely.”

Studley told The Center Square the rule requires employers to “reach a hypothetically impossible standard, and then disprove a negative, that it’s infeasible, or completely impossible to work remotely.”

Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity (LEO) spokesman Jason Moon told Crain’s Detroit MIOSHA will “very likely” extend emergency rules up to six months.

Sean Egan, director of Michigan COVID-19 Workplace Safety, told The Center Square that MIOSHA’s emergency rules don’t 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,” Egan wrote in an email. “Remote work is a strategy to minimize in-person contacts and is included in guidance from CDC and Federal OSHA to protect employees in the workplace.”

Egan said that LEO is establishing a work group made up of public and private sector experts who will advise Whitmer’s administration on a phased return to in-person office work.

In a phone interview, Studley described the order as “top-down, one-size-fits-all.”

Scott Ryan, vice president and general counsel of Zeeland-based electronic company Gentex, said restrictions are restraining the economy.

“Michigan’s remote working requirement has curtailed new product development efforts, hampered our ability to respond to operational concerns, negatively affected our ability to compete, and left many office employees battling isolation and depression,” Ryan said.

Michigan has some of the most restrictive COVID-19 restrictions in the nation. Meanwhile, Texas and Mississippi have released all restrictions.

Michigan’s downtown business districts and city governments are also being strained financially. Other than during protests, downtown Lansing has looked like a ghost town since March, decimating foot traffic on which small businesses rely.

“Without them, city buildings and parking structures remain deserted and restaurants, coffee houses and shops remain closed or on the brink of bankruptcy,” Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tim Daman said. “It is time to allow the option of reopening offices and other businesses safely.”

If continued, towns across Michigan, especially those that rely on local income tax revenue from commuting workers, will likely lose large amounts of tax revenue and small businesses may be forced to close permanently, Daman said.

“Many of our cities are now facing multi-million dollar budgetary shortfalls in large part due to Michigan’s work from home requirements,” Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Baker said. “The effects of employees staying home have caused once-vibrant downtowns and urban areas to lose businesses and jobs. It’s time to change course.”

Starting Friday, restaurants and bars will have 50% capacity restrictions, up from 25%, and an 11 p.m. curfew.

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