Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has laid a clear path for Michigan to eliminate its COVID-19 health order and associated restrictions: Get 70% of the population 16 or older to have at least one vaccine shot.
But simultaneously, the state is working through a process to make permanent its workplace COVID-19 rules, enforced through the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The current temporary MIOSHA workplace rules expire Oct. 14 and cannot be extended again, per state law.
Republicans and business leaders are unhappy with the prospect of permanent rules.
“Voice your opposition to Whitmer’s plan to make heavy-handed COVID rules permanent,” the Michigan Republican Party wrote on Twitter. “Say NO to out-of-control, big-government intrusion into the lives and livelihoods of Michiganders. We must end this madness.”
The Small Business Association of Michigan added a form to its website allowing people to send a message to MIOSHA saying they oppose permanent rules. Within a few hours of adding it to the website, there were hundreds of responses, SBAM President Brian Calley said.
“The notion of having permanent COVID-19 rules – there was a very visceral, negative reaction to that from members,” Calley said.
In light of last week’s pivot on masks from the Centers for Disease Control and Michigan, Calley thinks MIOSHA will abandon its pursuit of permanent rules.
A draft of the permanent rules is available online and closely mirrors the current emergency rules – including requiring masks for workers when they can’t maintain 6 feet of distancing, requiring barriers, mandating daily temperature checks and health screenings of employees and recommending people work remotely when feasible.
Starting May 24, MIOSHA will remove the remote work requirements from its emergency rules – since Michigan hit the 55% vaccination mark. However, MIOSHA hasn’t committed to removing the language from the permanent rules, said Sean Egan, Michigan director of COVID-19 workplace safety.
There’s a hearing scheduled for May 26 to discuss the proposed rules.
The permanent rule-making process takes about 12 months to complete, Egan said.
But business leaders say those rules will be obsolete by October. Some unsuccessfully advocated for the MIOSHA rules to sunset once the state’s COVID-19 health order is removed. The permanent rules draft would allow MIOSHA to reconsider the rules after the health order is gone, but doesn’t require it.
Making sure these rules don’t become permanent is the top priority right now for the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said executive director Scott Ellis.
Likewise, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce is also speaking out against the idea. Vice President Wendy Block said employers know how to keep their workers safe by now and that the CDC guidelines are enough.
“MIOSHA needs tools to hold employers accountable if they choose not to (follow safety protocols),” Egan said. “By simply ‘following the CDC guidelines,’ it really restricts MIOSHA’s ability to ensure that workers have a safe workplace.”
MIOSHA has cited more than 280 workplaces for COVID-19 violations. It’s received more than 15,000 complaints since March 2020, which is more than fiscal years 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 combined.
State law requires MIOSHA to go through a months-long process to extend its rules further, even though COVID-19 trends change so quickly it could render them outdated.
The agency is forced to predict how widespread COVID-19 will be in mid-October. State leaders are taking the conservative route. Businesses are betting the virus won’t be a problem by then – or say there are other rule-making options, if needed.
“We don’t think it’s reasonable to establish permanent rules, ‘just in case,’” Calley said.