Michigan business groups are lobbying against their own workers

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivers her State of the State address on Jan. 25 at the state Capitol. (AP Photo/Al Goldis)

By Kyle Kaminski

October 12, 2023

Local chambers of commerce and lobbyists have joined Republican lawmakers in opposing state legislation designed to build up Michigan’s workforce and grow the middle class. 

MICHIGAN—Democratic-led legislation that aims to ensure Michigan workers receive better wages and benefits is facing new opposition this week—namely from groups representing employers who could soon be required to take better care of their workers.

Last week, the Michigan Chamber of Commerce (along with the local chambers in Detroit and Grand Rapids) announced a new effort—called Great Lakes Growth—to push back against several popular pieces of Democratic-led legislation that are designed to help Michigan’s working families and grow the middle class.

Specifically, the group is opposing bills that would ensure all workers are entitled to 15 weeks of paid family or medical leave; allow local governments to set their own labor standards to create higher wages; create safeguards to protect employees from being misclassified as independent contractors; and create new clean energy standards that encourage energy production from renewable sources like wind and solar sources.

In August, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced some of those policies as top priorities to help make the state a more attractive place to live, work, and start a family. And in recent weeks, Democratic lawmakers have moved some bills closer to the finish line.

Great Lakes Growth, which bills itself as a new “long-term economic growth coalition,” contends the legislation is “so dangerous to Michigan’s economic growth potential that formal coalitions have been formed to stop them.” But groups that represent workers say the business-aligned group is only looking out for profits—and not their employees.

In a statement, Fund MI Future Executive Director MoReno Taylor II labeled the formation of the Chamber’s new campaign as an “entirely predictable development.”

“It seems that every time our elected leaders try to enact policy reforms that would benefit working families, certain elements of the business community get together with their lobbyists in a full court press to stop them,” he said. “This group is defining growth pretty non-holistically; it can’t just be about maximizing profit and shareholder returns.” 

Paid Family & Medical Leave

Two of the bills targeted by Great Lakes Growth—Senate Bills 332 and 333—would allow Michigan workers up to 15 weeks of paid leave to deal with family and medical issues, like giving birth, bereavement, mental health issues, school or workplace closures tied to public health emergencies, and school meetings about student health.

If passed, they would effectively create a state-level replacement for the Family Medical Leave Act, which only requires larger employers to offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave. 

Recipients would be eligible to receive up to 65% of the state’s average weekly wage.  According to the most recent state data available, that would be up to $790 per week. 

“It gives you breathing room to get better when you’re sick, bond with your baby, or care for a family member,” Whitmer said of the plan earlier this year. “Enacting paid leave levels the playing field, helping small businesses attract and retain workers.”

Just days after Whitmer announced her support for the legislation, the Michigan Republican Party was caught spreading lies about the proposal. A talking-points memorandum obtained by The Messenger showed that Republican operatives in the Michigan House of Representatives urged elected officials to publicly refer to the paid family and medical leave proposal as “summer break for adults.”

In reality, the program would provide a safety net to prevent Michiganders from losing their paychecks when they’re injured or need time away from work to care for family. 

“When I had to use medical leave to recover from a severe illness last year, it sure didn’t feel like summer camp,” Taylor said in a statement. “If I would have had to go without a paycheck for those weeks, it would have been catastrophic to my family’s finances.”

Great Lakes Growth have likened the paid leave proposal to a new payroll tax, and argued it would “create a massive new state bureaucracy” to hurt small businesses.

Despite the recent opposition from Great Lakes Growth, a February Data for Progress poll found that 79% of Americans support paid family and medical leave—including 72% of Republicans. A Pew Research survey also found that 99% of Americans said spending time with family is at least “somewhat important” to them. A 2015 poll from Denno Research also shows that Michiganders have supported paid leave for years, with 86% of Michiganders voicing support for paid sick time allowances in that survey. 

The bills have since been sent to the Senate Committee on Housing and Human Services. Lawmakers have said they plan to get them passed by the end of the year.

Clean Energy Standards

Great Lakes Growth has also targeted another popular proposal from Whitmer to curb climate change and protect natural resources—namely by moving Michigan to a 100% clean energy standard by no later than 2050. To help stay on track, lawmakers have proposed several bills designed to expand clean energy production across Michigan.

Bills introduced in the Senate reportedly call for increasing the state’s 15% renewable energy requirement to 60% in 2030 and 100% in 2035. Another bill would reportedly require the Michigan Public Service Commission to better prioritize equity, health, affordability, and climate impacts when making its regulatory decisions. 

“We can protect our natural resources and produce cheaper energy. We can bring supply chains home and lower costs for families,” Whitmer said earlier this year. 

It’s not just about protecting the environment, either. Whitmer has said that accelerating the adoption of clean energy production policies in Michigan will help create 160,000 new jobs and save families about $5.5 billion in household energy costs by 2050—and also allow the state to capture about $14.7 billion in federal clean energy funds.

In a recent poll commissioned by the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, voters across the political spectrum supported policies to protect Michigan’s air and water—including moving toward a 100% clean energy standard. The poll also showed that nearly 66% of Michiganders agree that climate change is caused by human activity.

A Data for Progress poll also found that 80% of Michiganders support increasing investments in homes and businesses to improve efficiency and lower their energy bills.

Instead of pursuing new clean energy standards, however, Great Lakes Growth is calling for lawmakers to slow down and reconsider “realistic” policies that allow for the continued use of fossil fuels. The group labeled the proposals “unnecessary” and claimed—without evidence—that they would harm businesses and the economy.

Hanna Schulze, president of People First Economy, said that’s a short-sighted vision. Instead, she said that proactive policies designed to keep the state at the forefront of the clean energy industry will invariably help businesses, as well as their employees.

“Rather than slow the process down and insist that these changes will harm Michigan’s economy before they’ve even been enacted, we need to stop wasting time and do what’s right for the people of our state,” Schulze said in a statement this week. “These bills have also been drafted with considerations for small businesses and how the policies will be implemented within them. We should listen to the small-business owners that are building a better future for everyone and get these reforms done.”

State Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo), who chairs the Senate Energy and Environment Committee, has said that he expects to vote on several bills “very soon.”

Regulatory Changes and Local Control

Another key aspect of the Great Lakes Growth campaign is fighting to keep local government preemption laws on the books in Michigan, which currently prevent cities and townships from setting their own local labor standards and workforce policies —including higher wages, paid leave, and fair scheduling practices.

In March, Sen. Sean McCann (D-Kalamazoo) introduced two bills—nicknamed the “Death Star” bills after Star Wars—that would repeal Michigan’s local government preemption laws, which critics argue result in wage suppression and greater economic inequality.

Repealing the preemption laws would enable cities and townships to set their own minimum wages and labor standards, as well as give preference to contractors that use union workers for construction projects.

Unions and local government officials in support of the bill have said this repeal would allow community leaders to make the decisions that work best for their community and improve local labor conditions. Business groups, however, have largely opposed the measure because it could require them to increase their employees’ compensation.

Great Lakes Growth has also voiced their opposition to legislation that seeks to create a much narrower definition of “independent contractor” in state law. If the bill were to pass, it would require employers to reclassify many of their existing independent contractors,and offer them higher wages and full benefits. 

The group argues that workers want the “freedom” to “choose independent contractor work” in “our evolving, modern gig economy” so they can “pursue their dreams,” but workers misclassified as independent contractors lose out on the many protections afforded to employees by state and federal labor laws. 

These protections include a minimum wage; overtime pay; meal breaks and paid rest periods; paid family and sick leave; unemployment insurance; workers’ compensation insurance; employer-sponsored healthcare and retirement benefits; employer’s share of Social Security and Medicaid; and more.

A huge body of research shows that companies often misclassify workers as independent contractors in order to exploit them and avoid providing these benefits and protections.

The new law would fine businesses that incorrectly classify workers as contractors. 

Taylor said there are “reams of data” showing that Michigan needs the proposed protections to help avoid a shrinking population and a declining quality of life in the state, arguing that “it can’t just be about maximizing profit and shareholder returns.”

“Workers are not robots, so growth also means investing in communities and people to create thriving cities that attract employees and employers alike,” Taylor said in a statement. “These are not radical ideas and businesses shouldn’t feel threatened by policies that make Michiganders stronger and more stable.”

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks told The ‘Gander that the Democratic majority will remain focused on helping working-class Michiganders.

“Our new ‘Majority for the People’ is dedicated to listening to the voices that have long gone unheard. That means Michigan’s working men and women, ” Brinks said. “The needs and values of Michigan’s people and businesses are not mutually exclusive and I believe we can all row together in the same direction.”

READ MORE: Most Michiganders Stand Behind Whitmer’s Plans, Poll Finds

For the latest Michigan news, follow The ‘Gander on Twitter.

Follow Political Correspondent Kyle Kaminski here.

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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