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May 28 | This Week in Government: MIOSHA Says Fully Vaccinated Employees Can Unmask at Work; Regional Unemployment Mostly Down in April

Each week, the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Government Relations team, in partnership with Gongwer, will provide members with a collection of timely updates from both local and state governments. Stay in the know on the latest legislation, policy priorities, and more.

  1. MIOSHA Says Fully-Vaccinated Employees Can Unmask at Work
  2. Regional Unemployment Mostly Down in April, Still Higher Than ’19
  3. House Bills Would Reduce Fees for Biz Shut Down, Limited by COVID
  4. Committee Nixes 3rd Grade Retention for ’21, Expands to 4th Grade for ’22
  5. Bernstein Breaks from Justices as MSC Denies Eavesdropping Questions

MIOSHA Says Fully-Vaccinated Employees Can Unmask at Work

GRAND RAPIDS – Several updates to coronavirus safety protocols enshrined in the state’s work safety emergency rules were lifted Monday, allowing a return to in-person work for employers and their employees and a lifting of workplace mask and social distancing orders for the fully vaccinated.

The updated Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA) guidelines were announced alongside the new Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) order regarding masks and gatherings, which will eliminate outdoor capacity limits and increase indoor gathering limitations to 50% capacity effective June 1.

Changes to MIOSHA COVID-19 emergency rules include allowing fully vaccinated employees to do away with face coverings and social distancing on the job provided employers have a policy deemed effective to ensure non-vaccinated workers or others continue to follow the rules. They also are based on performance, the state said Monday, eliminating industry-specific requirements. Definitions guiding those requirements have also been updated to more clearly reflect changes in close contact and quarantining requirements for fully vaccinated employees.

Many of the facility cleaning requirements from the early days of the pandemic have been updated to reflect new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which has in recent months backed off from the agency’s initial belief that surface-to-surface transmission was a strong mode of spreading COVID-19. While it is still possible, the CDC said it is less likely than direct, prolonged close contact between individuals.

The new rules also note that employers should continue to have and implement a written COVID-19 preparedness plan in line with the updated rules.

MIOSHA filed its updated COVID-19 emergency rules with the Michigan Office of Administrative Hearings and Rules on Friday. The agency also rescinded draft permanent COVID-19 rules and a public hearing on those rules scheduled for Wednesday has been canceled.

A more formal announcement surrounding the rule changes came Monday – the day the new rules went into effect – at an in-person press conference featuring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Acting Director Susan Corbin of the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, Andy Johnston, vice president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, and Jim Keane, CEO of the Steelcase furniture company, which hosted the press event at its Kentwood facility.

It was there that Gov. Whitmer also said that employers could still require masks and other return-to-work guidelines if they so pleased, they just wouldn’t be in violation of pandemic work health and safety orders if their vaccinated employees no longer don masks.

The emergency rules by law expire on Oct.14. However, the Governor’s office in a news release issued following the press event said that MIOSHA could also choose to rescind all or part of the rules.

As for rules that were to expire in October, Gov. Whitmer said the agency has integrated them with the latest CDC guidelines.

Although the announcement did not include a full lifting of COVID-19 work safety orders, Gov. Whitmer called the new rules a “slimmed down” version that reflects the progress the state has made in fighting COVID-19 – aided, of course, by a deeper knowledge of the virus the availability of safe and effective vaccines.

“That’s why it’s so important to get this right,” she said. “Together, we are eliminating once in a century virus, and now we’re poised to jumpstart our economy and power it up to new heights. We have a lot of work to do, but I know that we are up to it. Last week, Republican leaders in the Legislature and I announced a bipartisan agreement to work together to pass the budget in Michigan, into our schools and small businesses and communities.”

Not only has the state received money from the administration of President Joe Biden, but the state still has money that was sent to Michigan by way of congressional COVID-19 relief from the administration of former President Donald Trump.

The reemergence of Michigan’s economy post-pandemic and its new relaxing of COVID-19 rules was a testament to how seriously residents and their respective political and community leaders took the virus, Gov. Whitmer said.

“I know that after all the sacrifice and pain that people have felt and business felt from March 2020, we are now ready to get back and ready to take Michigan to the next level,” she said. “So, we’ve been tested and as I often say, tough times don’t last, tough people do. Michigan is bursting at the seams with possibility. It’s our job in state government (to) harness the boundless energy of our people, our businesses and our communities and channeling into big projects, bold initiatives, and of course, fundamentals that put us on a path to prosperity.”

Corbin in her remarks thanked Steelcase for their help on the state’s Return to Office Task Force that helped set policies guiding Michigan’s protocols to safely return to the workplace.

“Since the first COVID outbreak … the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and MIOSHA have been at the frontlines of the effort to keep workers safe from COVID,” Corbin said. “The MIOSHA emergency rules have not only protected employees, and giving them confidence that their workplace was as safe as possible, the rules also gave employers the clear guidance they needed to protect their workers.”

Meanwhile, at least one Republican legislative leader who has been critical of Gov. Whitmer’s handling of the pandemic questioned the timing of the announcement after a photo was posted to social media, and then deleted, violating social distancing and capacity restrictions.

Sen. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) on social media noted that he thought it was a strange that Gov. Whitmer had violated her own rules over the weekend and then days later lifted several key MIOSHA COVID-19 safety protocols.

“Something ‘science-y’ must have happened over the weekend,” Nesbitt tweeted Monday afternoon, linking to a news article about the new guidelines and complete with a shark emoji.

Gov. Whitmer, however, had announced the loosening of some restrictions last week and Monday was the day the remote work requirement was to be lifted.

WHITMER EVADES CLARITY ON FUTURE LEGISLATIVE HEALTH ORDER AGREEMENT: While the governor mentioned Monday a deal with legislative Republicans to work together on the fiscal year 2021-22 budget, all parties have also alluded to a new working framework that involves the Legislature in crafting future pandemic-related or other public health orders should they be necessary.

When asked what she would envision what that might look like – and more specifically, how Republican leadership would be involved – the Governor offered no greater clarity on the matter other than to say that she hoped more orders would not be necessary down the pike and that past decisions weighed heavily on her.

“Contrary to some of the rhetoric out there, it has been a hard year and three months,” Gov. Whitmer said. “None of these orders (were) issued lightly. …There’s not a governor in the nation that has had to do this and has had anything but a lot of angst around every decision they’ve had to make. I know because I’ve talked to a lot of them on both sides of the aisle.”

As to the root of the question, Gov. Whitmer did say that she that both her and the Legislature can now play a dual role.

“I think it’s something we can now do with an understanding that this is largely behind us,” she said. “We’ve learned some lessons. Perhaps there are some ways to do that and that’s what we’ve agreed to do and I think that’s a good thing.”

Related: State Updates Return-to-Work Safety Guidelines, MIOSHA Emergency Rules for the Workplace

Related: WATCH: Q&A on Updated MIOSHA Workplace Rules


Regional Unemployment Mostly Down in April, Still Higher Than ’19

The state’s not seasonally adjusted unemployment rates decreased in 15 of the 17 labor markets in April, the Department of Technology, Management, and Budget said Thursday, with levels still higher than two years ago.

“Jobless rates in Michigan regions have dropped very sharply since April 2020, which was the peak of COVID-19 pandemic layoffs,” Wayne Rourke, associate director of the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives, said in a statement. “Despite these improvements, jobless rates still remain above April 2019 levels.”

Statewide payroll jobs remain 326,000, or 7.4%, below April 2019 levels.

Regional unemployment rate decreases ranged from 0.3 to 0.9 percentage points, with a median rate cut of 0.6 percentage points. Both the Northeast and Northwest Lower Michigan regions exhibited the largest jobless rate drops of 0.9 percentage points. The Monroe and Lansing metropolitan statistical areas were the only two major Michigan regions with jobless rate advances over the month, primarily due to auto-related layoffs during April.

With April 2020 being the peak month for pandemic-related layoffs in Michigan, regional unemployment rates in the state were down significantly in all 17 Michigan major labor markets during the past year. Rates declined by a median 18.2 percentage points during the year with the largest over-the-year jobless rate drop occurring in Flint, which decreased 24.1 percentage points.

Regional workforce levels moved down in 15 Michigan areas in April, with a median decline of 0.7%. The largest labor force reduction occurred in the Muskegon area, which declined 1.3%. Labor force levels advanced in 13 labor market areas over the year, led by the Ann Arbor region with a gain of 4.6%. Workforce levels fell in the Muskegon, Monroe, Jackson, and Battle Creek regions since April 2020.

Employers indicated that not seasonally adjusted Michigan nonfarm jobs inched up by 5,000, or 0.1%, to 4,095,000. Minor employment increases were seen in most sectors. Manufacturing was an exception, as jobs fell by 11,000 during the month, due to auto layoffs related to a nationwide semiconductor chip shortage.

Payroll employment rose in nine metro areas in April, but job gains were minor with a median increase of just 0.4 percentage point. The Midland area had the largest over-the-month advance – up 1.7 percentage point – for the second consecutive month.

Five regions had payroll job cuts in April, led by the Lansing and Muskegon metro areas with declines of 0.9 and 0.7 percentage point, respectively.

Payroll employment in the state advanced by 718,000 over the year, or 21.3%, which reflected the recalls that have occurred since the April 2020 pandemic-related job lows. All 14 metro areas had nonfarm job additions over the year, led by Flint, up 30%.


House Bills Would Reduce Fees for Biz Shut Down, Limited by COVID

Businesses like restaurants, hotels, and bars – those hardest hit by restrictions due to the coronavirus – would see lower licensing fees under a package of bills discussed in the House Regulatory Reform Committee on Tuesday.

HB 4557, HB 4558, HB 4559, HB 4560, and HB 4561 are all sponsored by House Republican lawmakers and would either refund some license fees, prorate the payment to discount fees, or eliminate them altogether.

For example, the first bill would waive the annual renewal fee charged by the Michigan Liquor Control Code in 2021 for several businesses, including bars, to make up for the 2020 fee that was paid even as bars were limited for much of the year.

“On a philosophical level, I believe it is fundamentally wrong for the state to charge you for a product you can’t use,” Rep. Pauline Wendzel (R-Watervliet) told the committee.

Mason Doerr, with the Michigan Licensed Beverage Association, said the bills would help an industry crushed by the pandemic. On cost, he said federal COVID-19 relief funds could be used.

“Waiving food and liquor fees in 2021 would help relieve some of the burden our state’s struggling bars and restaurants are facing on top of an excess of other problems,” he said.

Other bills in the package would prorate fees to provide discounts during months where a business or industry may have not been operating, including in the skilled trades.

Rep. Beth Griffin (R-Mattawan) said she thought the legislation was fair.

“I look forward to providing this commonsense relief that the members of our skilled trades sectors deserve,” Griffin said.

The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs and the Liquor Control Commission both submitted cards opposing the legislation.

Rep. Roger Hauck (R-Mount Pleasant), the committee chair, said LARA reached out to him before the committee and said it is studying the fiscal effect of the bills and looked forward to conversations.

Hauck said he hoped the committee could work with the agency to get them to support the bills.

BOTTLE DEPOSIT FRAUD: The committee unanimously reported bills that would direct more funds to the enforcement of the bottle deposit system and increase penalties for those cheating the system.

HB 4780, HB 4781, HB 4782, and HB 4783 were reported 14-0.


Committee Nixes 3rd Grade Retention for ’21, Expands to 4th Grade for ’22

The requirement that third-graders unable to read at grade level remain in third grade for another year would be suspended for the current school year but return for the 2021-22 school year with a one-year expansion of the retention requirement for fourth-graders under a bill approved Wednesday by a Senate committee.

The Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee reported SB 265 and SB 268 to the full chamber with significant changes to the legislation.

As introduced, SB 265 would have simply lifted the grade retention requirement for the 2020-21 school year amid overwhelming sentiment that with the reduction in learning hours caused by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the decisions of some school districts not to return to in-person learning or only to do so on a limited basis, that this is not the time to start the third-grade reading retention law.

The retention language will resume force based on student performance in the 2021-22 school year. Under the S-1 substitute, the retention requirement would apply to fourth-graders for the 2021-22 school year as well. The 2022-23 school year would return application of the law only to third-graders.

A clearly frustrated Sen. Jon Bumstead (R-Newaygo), sponsor of the original version of the bill who opposed the changes in the substitute, had his name removed as the bill sponsor, with sponsorship going to Sen. Ken Horn (R-Frankenmuth), who said there must be an effort to assure students get the education they need to read at grade level.

“If we do nothing, it’s as bad as doing something wrong,” Horn said.

Bumstead, however, told the committee the bill is a move in the wrong direction.

“I was prepared to come to committee today to tell you how great Senate Bill 265 was and to ask for your support. Instead, I’m asking you to vote no,” he said. “Our students, teachers, administration, and parents do not need more mandates from Lansing.”

In an unusual situation, Bumstead said no one ever brought the proposed substitute to him. That’s almost unheard of for a majority caucus to dramatically change one of its members’ bills without their involvement or assent.

“If these ideas had been brought to me directly, I would have flat out rejected them,” he said. “And that is why I assume they were not.”

Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor), a committee member, told Bumstead it seemed odd he would be left out of the process as the bill sponsor.

“Well, that’s the same thing we thought. We were kind of left out of the process,” he responded.

The retention bill cleared the committee on a 4-2 party-line vote with Republicans in support and Democrats opposed, suggesting the bill is going to have problems if it reaches the desk of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The retention component of the law has never had Democratic support.

Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), a former teacher, said the non-retention parts of the third-grade reading law that provide literacy coaches and other supports to students not reading at grade level are working. She said data shows grade retention, however, does not work.

“Moreover, the data shows that retaining kids can be emotionally harmful in a typical year, but in a pandemic it’s my feeling that it’s just plain cruel,” she said.

Jennifer Smith of the Michigan Association of School Boards was one of several officials from public school groups to register opposition with the committee to the bill.

“We do not support bringing fourth-graders into the law, even for one year,” she said. “This puts an additional burden on our districts for retention, classroom assignments, and reporting and more importantly is unfair to those students who would suddenly be subject to retention going into fifth grade.”

The Michigan Department of Education also opposes the bill.

“Third-grade retentions are bad public policy, and even more so if expanding to students in two grades,” Superintendent of Public Instruction Michael Rice said in a statement. “Local school districts need to work carefully with families to focus on reading supports and minimize retentions and the resultant adverse impact to children.”

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), a committee member, said in effect the bill moves the retention decision on this year’s third-graders forward one year. It’s possible that some of the pupils who would have been held back this year will read at grade level as fourth-graders, he said.

“It’s not at this juncture that any of the kids per this bill are being held back,” he said.

The bill would retain good cause exemptions for retention in the current law that allow parents and school administrators to exempt a pupil from remaining in the same grade another year.

SB 268 would give parents the authority to have their child retained regardless of reading aptitude if the parent wanted. That bill, which is tie-barred to SB 265, also cleared the committee on a 4-2 party-line vote.


Bernstein Breaks from Justices as MSC Denies Eavesdropping Questions

Justice Richard Bernstein broke from his colleagues on the Michigan Supreme Court Wednesday when the high court declined to answer a set of certified questions and denied a request for oral arguments regarding the state’s implied prohibition on recording conversations without the consent of all parties involved.

The case was AFT Michigan v. Project Veritas (MSC Docket No. 162121), a lawsuit dating back to 2017. It centers around a complaint filed by the Michigan labor affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers against Project Veritas, a conservative group known for using secret recordings, fake identities, and scams to infiltrate and attempt to discredit organizations.

AFT Michigan alleged that the organization and one of its agents violated the Michigan eavesdropping statute by secretly recording – using both audio and video – certain conversations between AFT Michigan employees without their consent.

Attorney General Dana Nessel had asked the high court to rule on whether Michigan’s eavesdropping statute indeed prohibits the recording of conversations if the recording party was also involved in said conversation.

Certified questions were sent to justices by U.S. District Judge Linda Parker of the Eastern District of Michigan in mid-October 2020.

While Chief Justice Bridget McCormack had initially asked the parties to brief the matter, a majority comprising each of the high court’s justices besides Bernstein said in an order issued Wednesday that it respectfully declines to rule on the questions. Therefore, motions for oral arguments were also denied.

Bernstein wrote that he would have answered the certified questions but did not elaborate on what those answers might be if he and his fellow justices had the opportunity.