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Office life returns as state drops remote work requirement

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio

A worker, sitting at her desk, fingers poised on the keyboard. Busy hallways. Occupied meeting rooms. Mundane scenes that returned Monday, bringing – to some at least – a twinge of excitement.

“It feels great to be back in the office,” said Steelcase CEO Jim Keane on Monday morning, smiling mask-less in a sun-lit office area inside the company’s Grand Rapids headquarters.

Keane had just finished showing the governor around the space, explaining Steelcase’s plan to first invite, then encourage, then expect workers to return to the office.

“It’s really an amazing morning,” Keane said. “This morning in our meeting, one of our marketing people who was presenting, paused in the middle of her presentation and said, ‘You know this is the first time I’ve been in a room with people in a long time … and it feels amazing.’”

Monday the state officially lifted its requirement that companies must allow for remote work, “if feasible.” The remote work requirement has lived through various emergency orders stretching back to the beginning of the pandemic over a year ago. Even as workers in manufacturing, construction and other industries returned to the job last year, much of Michigan’s white collar workforce remained at home, working virtually.  

That changes today, or at least it can.

“Many companies have phased-in return to work,” Governor Gretchen Whitmer said Monday, addressing reporters alongside Keane. “But the law no longer requires remote work. I want to thank the employers who are taking this seriously and working with their employees to navigate things like child care and the work-life balance and ongoing personal health concerns.”

Under the revised rules from the state, employers will still be required to keep coronavirus safety plans, and do daily health screens for every employee. But workers who are fully vaccinated won’t be required to wear masks indoors.

Under the new rules, workers who've been vaccinated don't have to wear masks indoors. "Employees are not going to have to present any kind of paper," says Susan Corbin, head of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Companies will have to keep track of which employees are vaccinated and which are not.

But Susan Corbin, the head of Michigan’s Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity said the state won’t require proof of vaccination

“Employees are not going to have to present any kind of paper,” Corbin said.

Corbin says it’ll also be up to workers and employers to sort out amongst themselves what to do if the worker doesn’t want to return to the office.

“We know that employees not only are COVID-hesitant, but also there are still a lot of employees that are going to be struggling with child care issues,” Corbin said. “And so really until this fall when schools are back more full-time and when our capacity of child care increases, we know that that’s going to be a struggle for a lot of Michigan households.”

Struggle or not, as of Monday, Corbin says the state won’t be stepping in if businesses refuse to offer a remote option to workers who aren’t ready to return to the office.

You can read the full, updated emergency rules here.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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