The COVID-19 vaccine is “the ticket out” of the pandemic and will play a key role in employees’ return to the workplace, state officials said Monday while announcing a workgroup to provide recommendations for office safety.
The Return-to-Office Workgroup, which was first announced earlier this month by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will help inform Michigan Department of Health and Human Services orders and Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules related to resuming in-person work.
State officials as well as representatives from businesses across the state and organized labor make up the 16-member workgroup.
“Our priority remains the health and safety of Michigan workers and workplaces,” Sean Egan, the state’s director of COVID-19 workplace safety, said during a press briefing Monday. “Throughout the pandemic, we have worked closely with employers to provide strategies for safer in-person work, and this group is an extension of that collaboration.”
MIOSHA’s emergency rules require employers to develop policies to determine whether remote work is feasible in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The emergency order started Oct. 14, 2020, and lasts through April 14, when it is expected to be extended for six months, Egan said.
Business groups statewide have been calling for loosened restrictions on office spaces in recent weeks. Egan said that the emergency order, even if it is extended, can be amended based on factors including the vaccine rollout.
“We’ve been saying for quite a few months that we would be extending workplace rules in some form or fashion,” Egan said. “Obviously COVID-19 is not going away.”
However, widening accessibility to COVID-19 vaccines is a sign of optimism, he added. The new advisory group will meet weekly starting Thursday and is meant to capture “key insights” to align with policies, Egan said. State legislators will also be consulted about the process of returning to in-person office work.
Office workplaces have had 275 COVID-19 outbreaks over the last six months, as reported to MDHHS by local public health departments. MIOSHA may conduct on- or off-site investigations based on complaints filed by employees.
“What employers really need to focus on is how to manage vaccinations,” Egan said.
The state plans to rely on guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention involving recommendations about allowing in-person office work based on the number of employees who are vaccinated.
There will be “significant challenges” related to tying in vaccination rates and return to in-person work, Egan said.
“We’re trying to evaluate that the best we can,” Egan said. “We wouldn’t have a specific rule right now unless the CDC continues to update their guidance.”
Public sector members of the state’s workgroup include Egan, Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity Director Susan Corbin, MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel, state Treasurer Rachel Eubanks and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor. Other members include officials from Lear Corp., Rock Family of Companies, Steelcase Inc. and Dow Chemical Co., as well as four members representing organized labor.
“The establishment of this group ensures the recommendations will be based on real-world feedback from a diverse set of business, labor and public health experts,” said Dr. Pranav Kothari, director of health care strategy for the Rock Family of Companies. “The members of this group have been navigating the unique COVID-19 challenges in their field and are prepared to make informed recommendations. Partnerships like this are essential so we can all get back to work safely.”