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Michigan business leaders ask President Biden to reconsider vaccine mandate

vaccine
Republicans in the Michigan Legislature are throwing their support behind efforts to thwart a vaccine-or-test mandate that could affect 2 million workers in the state. (Shutterstock)

Nov. 5: Facing COVID vaccine mandates, these Michigan residents just said no
Nov. 4: Biden mandate means 2 million Michigan workers must get COVID vaccine
Oct. 25: Thousands of Michigan firms face Dec. 8 COVID vaccine mandate deadline
Oct. 21: 370 Beaumont workers suspended for refusing COVID vaccines. 70 more quit.

A coalition of Michigan business leaders is asking the Biden administration to reconsider a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for large businesses that was announced in early September.

With details on the mandate still pending six weeks later,  the business group — led by the Michigan Chamber of Commerce — said Monday that its concerns are mounting over rules that are expected to affect about two million Michigan workers who work at companies with 100 or more employees.

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Business leaders said they expected the mandate's detailed rules to be announced by Nov. 1. OSHA submitted them on October 12 to the federal Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which will consider them on an emergency temporary basis. Because of that, they’re expecting a shorter review process.

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The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration will then have 30 days to determine how it will execute the rules. Violations, Biden has said, could result in fines.

The stakes are high for business, said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber. However, he said the process for implementing the mandate has not been transparent, leaving him concerned that business concerns specific to the state will go unaddressed even as the economy continues to struggle for balance.

“Employees and employers across the country and our state have not had the traditional opportunity to provide input on details and specifics,” Studley said during a press briefing on Zoom.

 

Instead, Studley predicted, Michigan’s private employers of 100 or more workers will face a “one-size-fits-all, top-down” approach to occupational safety and health, something that he said will limit employer and employee rights and potentially harm Michigan’s economy.

A letter sent last month by 24 Republican governors to Biden threatened legal action against his administration if he did not cancel the mandate. So far, Biden has given no indication such objections will change his plan. When he announced the mandate, Biden said the rise in COVID cases was a “pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and said that the measure is not only critical for public health but would help keep businesses open.

Business sentiment is far from uniform. 

Indeed, a CNBC national survey this month found that 80 percent of CFOs “totally support” the mandate. Some had been considering a mandate when Biden stepped in to say the federal government would require it for large employers; others called the move “critical” to defeating the pandemic. 

At the same time, Michigan’s regulatory agency could enact more stringent rules than those coming from OSHA, Studley said. 

“Many of our members are concerned that Michigan might go far beyond what is required at the federal level,” Studley said.

Other participating chambers underscored that they hope Biden will hit pause on the federal vaccination mandate.

“Just slow down,” said Nikki Devitt, president of the Petoskey Area Chamber of Commerce. “Listen to us before forcing a federal mandate on our members. We not only want our communities safe from COVID, we want our businesses to get every opportunity they can for a full economic recovery.”

Biden announced the vaccination mandate Sept. 9, drawing mixed reaction from the nation’s businesses, some of which praised the move as a way to curtail the virus. In addition to the largest private employers, the first-term Democratic president’s order will also require all federal employees to be vaccinated, along with workers in firms that contract with the federal government and employees at all hospitals and other medical operations that receive Medicare and Medicaid funding.

Nationally, the vaccination mandate for companies with 100 or more employees will affect about 80 million workers, who also could choose to submit to weekly testing instead of getting the vaccine.

Michigan business advocates and employers have been awaiting details on the proposal as the pandemic continues across the state. While COVID-19 cases across the U.S. have declined, Michigan cases have risen since July and peaked within the last week. They now average roughly 3,600 new cases per day, 10 times the rate from July.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer set a goal early this year of 70 percent of state residents to receive at least one dose of one of three, U.S.-approved vaccines. The state is now at 68.4 percent, with 58.8 percent of residents ages 12 and up being fully vaccinated.

The high percentage of residents who remain unvaccinated has raised concerns about both mandate compliance and employee retention at a time when employers are facing “an incredible amount of employee friction and changes happening in the economy,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government affairs for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. 

According to a survey released in September by the Detroit Regional Chamber, 52 percent of statewide voters opposed allowing businesses to require proof of vaccination for employees and customers, while 44 percent support it. The survey did not ask about a government-imposed mandate. 

Still, it indicates Michigan residents continue to be split over how the government should address the pandemic, a situation also playing out in protests over mask mandates in schools. At the same time, Michigan’s labor force has declined by more than 200,000 workers since the start of the pandemic, creating pressure for businesses trying to hire and refill jobs.

Retaining workers is one of the biggest challenges Michigan businesses face, many chamber leaders said.

“Ultimately this (federal vaccine mandate) really puts job providers in an incredibly difficult position from both a political and just logistical position of trying to enforce (it),” Johnston said.

Among the chambers that did not join the effort is the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti Regional Chamber of Commerce. Andy LaBarre, executive director for government relations, told Bridge Michigan Monday that neither its policy committee nor chamber leadership considered opposition to the mandate as a top-level issue. 

“From a policy perspective, we’ve consistently stayed on the side of providing information and sharing with our members, and being deferential to the best public-health protection,” LaBarre said. 

He continued: “We want every business to succeed, but inherent in that is … folks staying healthy,” LaBarre said.

Other chambers involved in the anti-federal mandate coalition, called Listen to MI Business, include groups from Battle Creek, Lansing, Saginaw, the Northern Michigan Chamber Alliance and Traverse Connect in Traverse City.

Many already support their members who encourage employees to get vaccinations, Johnston said. 

“We want to create safe workplaces, but we really believe that each employer should have the flexibility to make judgments about safety, how we attract workers (and) how we operate our businesses,” Johnston said.

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