Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed bills into law Thursday that show Democrats and Republicans can find room to cooperate on the state’s response to COVID-19.
The bills are the result of bipartisan deal-making. They offer employers more protection from lawsuits and employees more guarantees they can’t be forced to work in situations that could place their health in danger.
The new laws set a standard of gross negligence for businesses to be held liable for exposing employees to COVID-19. Workers would have to prove an employer’s irresponsibility directly caused an illness. The laws also say employees can sue an employer for firing them, punishing them or forcing them to work when they’re sick with COVID-19.
The bills also provide more liability protections for businesses that shift to production and sales of personal protective equipment.
“No Michigander should have to worry about going into work when they’re sick, especially during a global pandemic,” Whitmer said in a written statement. “These bipartisan bills ensure crucial protections for our workers and businesses who do their part to protect our families and our frontline workers from the spread of COVID-19. I look forward to more collaboration with the Legislature where we can find common ground.”
The governor and the Legislature’s GOP majorities have often been at odds, especially over her executive orders that closed schools and shut down many types of business activities.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that Whitmer overstepped her authority, but the state Department of Health and Human Services director quickly issued public health orders that continued the governor’s mask orders.
The signings happened as a large group of businesses, labor groups, health care providers and others released an open letter expressing weariness with the political combat, saying, “On the cusp of a second wave, Michigan needs clearly defined mandatory standards which govern mask usage, workplace practices, public gatherings and certain social practices.”
The groups asked the Democratic governor and the Legislature’s Republican leaders to end court battles over the state’s COVID-19 response and develop a consensus plan to meet the challenges created by the coronavirus.
The governor also signed a bill that strengthens protections for nursing home residents, putting many of MDHHS’s existing COVID-19 policies for nursing homes into law.