Labor caucus, AFL-CIO debut plan to protect workers back on the job

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus and the Michigan AFL-CIO on Monday unveiled a package of bills they say will help Michigan workers as they return to their jobs as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

The package, the Workers First Reopening Plan, is a series of 11 bills written with the aim of giving workers extra protections as the state reopens various economic sectors shuttered in March by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The plan was drafted by the caucus in consultation with the Michigan AFL-CIO, a federation of 59 unions. Bills brought forward by state representatives would take a variety of labor actions, such as creating coronavirus-specific paid sick leave or providing mental health support to frontline workers traumatized by the pandemic.

It is important to provide sick leave and workers’ compensation changes, advocate for hazard pay and institute safeguards and standards at various Michigan worksites in the coming days, lawmakers and AFL-CIO officials said Monday.

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“Lately, you’ve seen workers on the news during this crisis, working in jobs from health care to food service, often risking their health and the health of their families in the process,” said Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber. 

Working people in Michigan are nervous about returning to work right now, Bieber said, noting the transition to working in environments altered by the pandemic could be “tough.” The bill package in question would also allocate more personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical care to workers to offset fears about contracting the virus or starting a second wave.

“We also need to make sure that workers have the protections they need to stay self safe and healthy at home and on the job,” Bieber said. 

Republican leaders in the Legislature need to work on a state budget taking into account the continued need for worker protections in the wake of COVID-19, Bieber said.

“Republicans [in Lansing] haven’t so much as proposed a budget in 2020,” he said. “They need to start working on that now, so that schools and local towns and county counties have the certainty they need to what looks like a tough economy for the near future.”

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Gideon D’Assandro, spokesperson for House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), said it is up to legislative committees to decide if any bills in the Workers First Reopening Plan need revising.

“If those are in committee, the individual committees will take a look and decide whether any changes need to be made,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) was “not aware of the package and has not had a chance to review the details,” said spokesperson Amber McCann.

The question remains whether the bills receive support from the Republican caucus. State Rep. Brian Elder (D-Bay City), chair of the Michigan Legislative Labor Caucus, said he is calling on Democrats and union members to reach out to Republicans.

“What we have seen for the last few cycles is that the Republican Party is trying to claim to be the new party for the working class in our country,” Elder said. “This is a really great opportunity for them to put up or shut up. I know that in my conversations with members of the Republican caucus, there’s a great deal of interest and sympathy in this type of legislation.”

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As the year progresses, compromises will have to be made between Whitmer, a Democrat, and Republican leadership in the Legislature, Elder said. Right now the governor is trying to increase line items in the state budget for the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration (MIOSHA), food safety inspection and other areas related to keeping workers safe during the pandemic, he added.

“It remains to be seen whether or not Republican leadership is serious about that, because as President Bieber pointed out, they have not given us a budget yet,” Elder said.