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Business Organizations Want In-Person Workplace Restrictions Eased

March 9, 2021

State officials should give employers more leeway in bringing employees back into the office once the current emergency rules limiting the practice expire April 14, according to a coalition of business organizations and chambers of commerce.

Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) emergency rules signed Oct. 14 prohibit in-person work as long as their “work activities can feasibly be completed remotely” as a way to control the spread of COVID-19. The rules stay in effect for six months, after which they could be extended an additional six months. 
 
Business leaders said at a Thursday morning press event that a rules extension would have a “dramatic impact” on businesses, particularly downtowns, where retail shops and restaurants count on the foot traffic and the income tax revenue. “Once-vibrant downtowns and urban areas” are losing business.  
 
Also, technology companies like Gentex in Zeeland count on a collaborative environment to bounce ideas off each other when crafting new products.  
 
Emergency rules do not place a flat ban on in-person work. They require employers — in the name of lower COVID-19 spread — to determine whether remote work for employees is feasible, which is consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and federal heath guidance, said Sean Egan, director of Michigan COVID-19 Workplace Safety. 
 
If employers feel an in-person work environment is necessary, they need to make sure social distancing, face coverings, health screenings and other measures are put in place, he said. 
 
Companies understand they could make the argument that their in-person brainstorming sessions can’t be effectively done remotely, but executives don’t want to risk running crossways with MIOSHA inspectors, drawing a fine and getting shamed in media coverage. 
 
“There’s only so much collaboration you can do from the kitchen table,” said Saginaw County Chamber of Commerce CEO Veronica Horn. 
 
Gentex Vice President and General Counsel Scott Ryan said his developers aren’t able to respond to operational concerns. He has employees who are battling isolation and depression. Overall, being out of the office for nearly a year has “negatively affected our ability to compete” on the national stage. 
 
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday she would be forming a workgroup within the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity to advise the administration on reengaging office workplaces. 
 
However, executives such as Rick Baker of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce questioned the “authenticity” of a workgroup process. Horn added that “workgroups are fine,” but she’s concerned it will “drag things out.” 
 
A workgroup process wasn’t used to loosen restrictions on other industry and Horn didn’t see how one in this case would do anything more than “slow things down.” 
 
The Department of Labor and Economic Growth’s workgroup will be made up of public- and private-sector subject matter experts who will advise the administration on a phased return to in-person office work. The workgroup will be “taking into account the trajectory of the pandemic, vaccines and mitigation measures focusing on challenges and opportunities,” Egan said. 
 
In the end, Egan will be charged with signing an extension with the blessing of the Governor, but without legislative input or an appeals process. 
 
In launching an “#EndTheOfficeBan” effort, the business executives say offices are “mostly safe, low-risk and controllable environments.” 

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