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Sept. 11 | This Week in Government: Business Liability, Futures for Frontliners, and More

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. See below for this week’s headlines.

  1. Business, Trial Lawyers Split on COVID Immunity Bills
  2. MI COVID-19 Cases Dropping Weekly, Outbreak Clusters Growing
  3. Whitmer: Pandemic In ‘Early Phases’
  4. Broadband Expansion Bill Sees Further Support at Communications Panel
  5. Whitmer Unveils Details on Tuition Program for Workers

Business, Trial Lawyers Split on COVID Immunity Bills

Leaders of business organizations and of organizations representing plaintiff attorneys differed sharply Tuesday at the House Judiciary Committee on the merits of legislation that would substantially immunize employers from litigation filed by employees who contract COVID-19.

No vote was taken on HB 6031 and HB 6101, part of a broader package of bills designed to prevent a wave of lawsuits against employers claiming they put their employees at risk during the coronavirus pandemic. Rep. Graham Filler (R-DeWitt), the committee chair, said testimony would continue next week.

Under the bills, employers would not be liable from an employee’s exposure to COVID-19 if the exposure happened during the COVID-19 state of emergency and the employer was in substantial compliance with federal or state law or regulation, executive order or public health guidance. Immunity would not apply if the employer willfully exposed the employee to the disease.

Business organizations have made the immunity bills a top priority.

“Our members are trying to do the right thing, doing everything they can to follow the public health guidelines, but one little mistake they fear could cost them everything,” said Brad Williams, vice president of Government Relations at the Detroit Regional Chamber. “Anything that we can do as policymakers to give them just a little bit of breathing room so that when they’re doing the right thing they can be assured they can have some protection is the right thing to do.”

Debra Fried, an attorney speaking on behalf of the Michigan Association for Justice – the association for the state’s trial lawyers – said the bill’s use of the term “substantial compliance” is a major problem. What constitutes substantial compliance, she asked, raising the question of whether having 70% of employees wearing masks would count. It shouldn’t, she said.

“The Michigan Association for Justice wants businesses to open and operate, but we want them to do so safely so that workers and customers are safe from known risks,” she said, noting she and many other MAJ members also are employers as they own their firms. “We also want businesses who are in the best position to maintain safe environments to remain incentivized to follow published safety rules. We know that there’s a way to get businesses back operating safely and it is not by immunizing businesses who are only substantially complying with published health guidelines as these bills do and it’s not be sacrificing the rights of our employees including our first responders and health providers.”

Further, Fried said existing guidance from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Michigan law already protect employers who act reasonably from litigation.

Charlie Owens, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business-Michigan, scoffed at that argument.

“You’ve heard some testimony that we have nothing to fear because when we get to court we have a very strong law that will protect an innocent small business owner if they can prove they followed the law and did the things they need to do,” he said. “The problem is the vast majority of our members never see the inside of a courtroom because they cannot afford to prove they were right. We’ve seen this in other areas of the law where the plaintiff’s bar has been activist in pursuing small businesses with a settlement strategy that says we will bring you into this lawsuit unless you settle with us.”

It is cheaper to settle than to fight, he said. The bills would discourage “fishing expeditions on very vulnerable small businesses that can’t afford to go to court,” he said.

MI COVID-19 Cases Dropping Weekly, Outbreak Clusters Growing

The number of new coronavirus cases reported during the first week of September was nearly 22% fewer than those reported weeks and months earlier at the onset of a summer spike in confirmed cases, data from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) shows.

DHHS data on outbreak reporting also shows that the number of outbreak clusters grew in certain settings, the most significant being in long-term care and nursing home facilities, which saw its outbreak cluster grow by 15 as of Thursday, the most recent data available

Those outbreaks have also been noticeable on college campuses, which have been reporting a slew of new outbreaks since students returned for a mixture of in-person and distance-learning instruction. As of Tuesday, Michigan State University (MSU) in particular noted that 124 students, nearly all of whom live off-campus, tested positive for COVID-19 since Aug. 30.

Between Aug. 30 and Saturday, DHHS reported 3,001 confirmed cases, which was down 21.8% from the 3,840 confirmed cases reported Aug. 23-28. That number was 4.11% fewer than the 4,005 cases reported a week earlier between Aug. 16-22.

Cases also fell by 8.6% from the 4,384 reported July 26 through Aug. 1 when compared to figures reported Aug. 16-22. A month prior, between June 28 and July 4, the state reported 3,737 – an increase of 29.9% from late June to late July.

Regarding new outbreak clusters, DHHS reported the following increases in outbreaks as of last week Sept. 3. Previously reported outbreak cluster totals are noted in parenthesis:

  • Long-term care facilities – 15 (52)
  • Agriculture /food processing – 2 (9)
  • Bar employee associated – 3 (3)
  • Bar employee and patron associated – 0 (1)
  • Restaurant employee associated – 5 (10)
  • Restaurant employee and patron associated – 0 (0)
  • K-12 schools – 3 (8)
  • Colleges and Universities – 7 (4)
  • Child care/youth programs – 1 (2)
  • Manufacturing/Construction – 3 (15)
  • Office settings – 2 (8)
  • Retail employee associated – 2 (6)
  • Retail employee and patron associated – 0 (0)
  • Personal services (hair/spa/gym) – 1 (2)
  • Jail/prison – 1 (2)
  • Health care (inpatient/outpatient) – 6 (12)
  • Shelters/homelessness facilities – 0 (0)
  • Religious services – 0 (3)
  • Community exposure (indoor: concert/meeting) – 1 (1)
  • Community exposure (outdoor: mass gathering/rally) – 1 (0)
  • Social gathering – 6 (12)
  • Other – 2 (7)

MSU addressed its ongoing outbreak concerns saying the cases do not appear to be linked to a particular event but rather multiple large gatherings in East Lansing and the greater community since mid-August.

The number of positive cases also only reflect symptomatic students who were tested at MSU locations or those who self-reported an off-campus positive test to the university. It is not required of students to self-report to the university, but all who have reported have been directed to self-isolate and seek care.

“This increase in positive cases among students is disappointing, but not unexpected,” MSU President Samuel Stanley said in a statement Tuesday. “As students return to off-campus housing, some are attending large gatherings where people are in close contact without an appropriate face covering. This is the easiest and fastest way for the coronavirus to spread.”

Whitmer: Pandemic In ‘Early Phases’

The COVID-19 pandemic is nowhere near over, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday.

Gov. Whitmer had a nearly 35-minute live-streamed conversation with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan President and CEO Dan Loepp, that was hosted and broadcast by the Detroit Regional Chamber.

“We’re still, I hate to say it, in the relatively early phases,” she said.

Gov. Whitmer also cautioned that the end of summer should put the residents on even greater alert.

“As the temperature starts to drop and we start to go inside, it’s really important we all continue to keep our guard up because that’s how COVID spreads,” she said. “When we’re close in contact and when we’re inside is more dangerous, inherently.”

Gov. Whitmer offered two messages regarding the economy. She cited the fall in the state’s unemployment rate as evidence for her case that “our economy has largely rebounded.”

Michigan’s unemployment rate in July was 8.7%, less than half what it was months earlier, but still considerably higher than it was before the pandemic.

The Governor also spoke of her concerns for the state’s employers. Gov. Whitmer’s executive orders kept some industries closed for months, and a handful remain shuttered.

“No one wants to reengage every sector of the economy more than me,” she said. “I know that there are some businesses that may not reopen, that will struggle to make it if they do. I lose sleep over that.”

That said, Gov. Whitmer said the state is confronting a global pandemic, and a strategy to protect public health will make Michigan businesses stronger.

“Until there are approved vaccines that are safe … we’re going to continue to have to be smart, follow the science and continue to take precautions,” she said.

Gov. Whitmer Signs Bill Appropriating Unemployment Relief
Gov. Whitmer on Tuesday signed SB 745 (PA 150, immediate effect), appropriating $2.8 billion in federal revenues from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for the emergency $300 per week supplemental employment benefit implemented by President Donald Trump.

The $300 per week benefit replaced the $600 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance weekly emergency benefit that expired in July.

“This is good news for the thousands of Michiganders who are still without work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a short-term Band-Aid that falls short of what’s needed,” Gov. Whitmer said in a statement. “We need the president, Mitch McConnell, and Congress to put partisanship aside and pass a bipartisan recovery package that will help us save lives and get people back on their feet. Michigan families, frontline workers, and small business owners are counting on the federal government to do the right thing and work together on their behalf.”

The bill also includes funds for a barrier to prevent the Asian carp from entering Lake Michigan as well as flood cleanup funds for Gladwin and Midland counties and some flood response funds for the city of Detroit.

Broadband Expansion Bill Sees Further Support at Communications Panel

A bill seeking to expand broadband access in rural or underserved parts of Michigan was warmly received by most testifying before the House Communications and Technology Committee Wednesday.

HB 4288, sponsored by Rep. Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton), would establish a statewide grant program aimed at expanding broadband service to underserved areas of Michigan through the creation of the Michigan Broadband Expansion Act.

The bill is especially timely as the topic of broadband access, especially in underserved communities, is a top concern due to the new coronavirus pandemic and the heavy reliance on remote learning this school year that it has caused.

Testifying in support of the bill Wednesday was Matt Groen, executive director of the Michigan Cable Telecommunications Association, who said this bill will “ensure that those who truly lack access to broadband will be able to get it.”

“MCTA believes that the focus for rural broadband efforts should be on the Connecting Michigan Communities, also known as CMC, broadband program that was put in place last year,” he said. “(The bill) would improve upon and codify this program and allow cable providers … to be able to reach some of these areas of the state that my members, otherwise, would not go.”

The CMC initiative Groen references is a $20 million grant program initially approved during the 2018 lame-duck session, which is meant to expand broadband within the state by extending out from already existing infrastructure.

When asked by Rep. Kevin Coleman (D-Westland) what Groen viewed as the difference between HB 4288 and the CMC grant program, Groen said the bill serves to improve upon the grant program by offering “small little tweaks” and codifies the entirety of the initiative into law.

Additional groups supporting the bill include the Michigan Community College Association and the Telecom Association of Michigan.

Also testifying Wednesday was Tom Frazier with the Michigan Townships Association, who said his organization was neutral on the bill. While it supported the core mission of the legislation, the group felt like municipalities should have the ability to opt into this program and be able to run their own broadband networks.

He also took issue with broadband service not being available to consumers who would not benefit from the expansion until up to three years after installation, adding that the deadline should be shortened to 18 months.

When asked by Hoitenga, who also chairs the committee, why the group felt municipalities should have an opt -in ability and be able to manage their own networks, Frazier said it was because it would not be profitable for businesses to install broadband in these areas.

At that, Hoitenga was visibly perplexed.

“You do realize that this bill is doing exactly that? This bill is intended to go to places that we wouldn’t typically go,” she said. “I would disagree with the premise that a municipality would need to start their own broadband because, hopefully, as this rolls out, this gives incentive for our providers to go places they would not typically go.”

Frazier again said MTA believed there should be an opt-in option for municipalities and pointed to Lyndon Township in Washtenaw County as an example of a municipality that was successfully running its own broadband services.

No votes were taken on the bill, though an H-1 substitute was unanimously adopted.

An additional resolution came before the committee Wednesday – HR 283, which urges Congress to allocate funds for state establishing broadband expansion block grant programs – which also did not see a vote.

Whitmer Unveils Details on Tuition Program for Workers

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced Thursday the launch of a program that will cover the tuition for those workers who are filling essential needs during the COVID-19 pandemic, and in a new twist, the program no longer will need legislative approval.

Gov. Whitmer first announced the concept of the program in April with the idea of having the state pay for community college tuition toward a skill certificate or associate degree or completing their high school diploma or equivalent and continue onto college. Thursday, she spelled out details of how Future for Frontliners would work.

The program is open to Michigan residents who worked at least part-time in an essential industry for 11 of the 13 weeks between April 1 through June 30 of this year, were required to work outside of their home at least some of the time during that period, not have previously earned a bachelor’s or associate degree, and not be in default on a federal student loan.

Applications are due by 11:59 p.m. Dec. 31, 2020.

“We’ve got to work around the clock to ensure that long after this crisis is over that our front-line workers have the support they need to get ahead in our country,” Gov. Whitmer said at a news briefing announcing the launch of the program. “Historically when Americans put their lives on the line for our country, the betterment of our country to defend us from a common enemy, a grateful nation has afforded them some educational opportunities to show our gratitude.”

The program will be funded with $24 million via the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which is funded by the federal CARES Act.

Among the eligible fields are those in medical professions, manufacturing, nursing homes, grocery stores, sanitation, delivery, and retail.

A broad coalition of business, local government, health care groups as well as unions and large corporations lauded the plan.

“As an employer of nearly 20,000 frontline associates here in Michigan and beyond, we are proud and thankful for each of our employees who stepped up to feed our customers and our communities during the pandemic,” said Rachel Hurst, corporate affairs manager for the Kroger Company of Michigan. “We’re excited for them to have this hard-earned opportunity to continue their education with support from the Futures for Frontliners program which pairs well with our Feed Your Future program.”

John Walsh, president and CEO of the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said the program would recognize the efforts of manufacturing workers who have continued working in-person through the pandemic to make vital products like food, prescription drugs, transportation, and more.

Henry Ford College President Russ Kavalhuna said the program offers a unique opportunity for frontline workers.

“They put themselves at risk to serve Michigan residents during a pandemic. We will put their futures at the forefront now,” he said.

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