It is "likely" that Michigan's emergency rule restricting most in-person office work will be extended for up to six months after it expires in mid-April, according to Sean Egan, COVID-19 workplace safety director for Michigan's Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.
But Egan said the restrictions could be modified at any time as COVID vaccination rates and case rates change.
The restrictions are in an October 14 emergency order of the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA). Currently they require employers to prohibit in-person work if it can feasibly be done remotely.
Some business groups oppose an extension of the rule, claiming it would hurt the economy and cause permanent job losses. Reopen Michigan Safely is a recently formed coalition of business leaders who are calling on Governor Gretchen Whitmer to "end the office ban on April 14th."
But Egan said describing the rule as a ban is inaccurate.
"It is not the ban that they would proclaim it to be," said Egan. "It does require employers to make a determination if [remote work] is feasible. If it is not feasible, those people can work in the office."
"Remote work as it relates to office work in particular is probably the greatest mitigation tool that we have," said Egan. "When we start bringing people back together, that's when we have challenges cutting the chain of transmission."
State labor officials have formed a new workgroup to advise Whitmer on standards and best practices for a phased-in return to in-person office work.
"Congregation in any setting creates risk," Egan said. "Employers have implemented innovated approaches to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and bringing this new group together will provide a mechanism to capture key insights to align policies with best practices and health guidance."
The group of business, labor and public health leaders will meet weekly starting Thursday.
Egan said the workgroup will make recommendations on a rolling basis.
A spokesperson for Whitmer responded to a request for comment with a written statement:
“The health and safety of Michigan residents continues to be Governor Whitmer’s top priority. While countless Michiganders are already safely going to their place of employment, some jobs do not require in-person work, which is why the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration asks employers in those sectors to allow their employees to work from home to maximize safety unless it is absolutely necessary for employees to be in the office. Governor Whitmer created a work group of business and labor leaders to make recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep their employees safe while in the workplace. We are all anxious to return to life as normal, and that’s why our administration is laser-focused on ramping up vaccine distribution and support small businesses to help us get there.”