Lawmakers are including provisions for everyday workers and small business owners as the coronavirus pandemic continues to attack Michiganders’ physical and financial health.
LANSING, Mich.—Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature on Wednesday voted to keep intact longer-lasting unemployment benefits and other coronavirus-related orders issued by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, while also striking a deal on liability protections for businesses.
The move followed a monthlong fight over the governor’s unilateral measures to control the pandemic after lawmakers refused to extend her emergency declaration last spring. The state Supreme Court this month declared unconstitutional a 75-year-old law that had underpinned Whitmer’s restrictions.
The unemployment measure was among several approved during a lengthy session that began Tuesday and did not end until after 3 a.m. Businesses, health providers and others who are sued over COVID-19 infections would be more shielded from lawsuits, as long as they comply with all safety rules. Under another bill, employers could not discharge, discipline or retaliate against employees who stay home when they or their close contacts are sick.
The Oct. 2 high court ruling means Whitmer’s emergency declaration and underlying orders are no longer in effect. Her administration last week reinstated mask requirements, business capacity restrictions and other regulations under a public health law.
And on Wednesday, her administration issued emergency workplace safety rules that mirror ones previously in place. The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received more than 3,800 complaints from employees alleging COVID-19 hazards and 263 referrals from local governments such as county health departments.
The court decision, however, has forced her to work with the GOP-controlled Legislature on some issues.
Republicans and their allies in the business community said the immunity legislation was necessary to stop frivolous pandemic-related suits. A group representing plaintiff’s attorneys said it successfully lobbied to remove the “most harmful provisions,” including those that would have barred lawsuits unless a person had minimum symptoms or if the employer had substantially complied with safety guidelines.
The Michigan Association for Justice “steadfastly maintained our objections to any form of immunity while at the same time ensuring that any immunity that might be passed be as restrictive as possible,” president Donna MacKenzie said.
Other measures sent to the governor following hours of negotiations would codify her administration’s recently announced changes related to the care of nursing home residents recovering from the virus, let public bodies continue to meet electronically, and extend renewal dates for driver’s licenses and vehicle registrations. A nursing home could be a designated “care and recovery” center only if it had a federal staffing rating of at least three out of five stars, a “distinct area” for infected patients and staff were solely dedicated to treating them.
Nursing home residents account for 30% of Michigan deaths that have been tied to the virus.
“I think people are concerned that, up until now, their elected officials who are their voice in Lansing have not had input into these orders. As we move forward, I’m pleased the Legislature will have a seat at the table in crafting important decisions that affect our districts and constituents each and every day,” said Republican Rep. Annette Glenn of Midland.
The sponsor of the unemployment bill, Republican Sen. Ken Horn of Frankenmuth, said it would ensure that people out of work during the pandemic see no interruption in benefits. Whitmer last spring extended the maximum length of state payments from 20 to 26 weeks, expanded eligibility and added flexibility in the “work share” program that provides partial benefits when businesses cut workers’ hours rather than lay them off.
The jobless can receive additional payments from the federal government once they exhaust their state benefits.
The provisions in the unemployment bill would remain in place through Dec. 31.
“It’s good the Legislature took a step forward to provide immediate, temporary relief for families, but the bills just kick the can down the road and the Legislature needs to take further action to make this permanent,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.
Jason Moon, spokesman for the department that includes the Unemployment Insurance Agency, said legislators declined to extend some provisions that cut “red tape,” predicting the decision likely would delay payments to some claimants.