May 24, 2021
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Press Conference Transcript May 24: Return-to-Work Guidelines
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s May 24, 2021 coronavirus press conference. She discussed MIOSHA guidelines for workplaces bringing employees back to work. Read the full transcript of her COVID-19 news briefing speech here.
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Jim Keane: (01:22)
Good morning, and welcome to Steelcase. I’m Jim Keane, I’m CEO of Steelcase, and it’s my pleasure to have you all here today on a very important day for Michigan. I’d like to start by introducing our speakers. So of course we have Governor Whitmer, who’s joining for this press conference. We also have Susan Corbin, who is director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. And we have Andy Johnson, the vice president of Government and Corporate Affairs of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce.
Jim Keane: (01:49)
So it’s a big day for Michigan. It’s the day when people can come back to their offices. And it’s a very exciting day here at Steelcase, because we’re doing the same thing. We believe at Steelcase that we’re better when we’re together. And our people have been remarkably resilient over the last 15 months, learning to work in new ways, learning to work at home for the people who used to be in offices, learning to work differently for our people who are been in the factories this whole time; working with masks, working with barriers, working in safe ways, but working differently than we’re used to. Now, we can all choose our best place to work. With cases falling and vaccinations rising, now we have that choice.
Jim Keane: (02:28)
And our research shows that given that choice, workers want to come back to the offices, and businesses want to bring their people back to their offices. Workers want to reconnect with coworkers they haven’t seen in a long while, and businesses want to recapture the energy of creativity and innovation that comes from the natural human dynamics of people being face-to-face with each other in the workplace. I can tell you, personally, it feels great to be back in the office. It feels amazing today being in product reviews with our marketing people and our designers and our engineers that have been working on products, reviewing those products physically in front of us and feeling the natural back and forth that happens when people are together in a room. It’s really an amazing morning. As a leader of a company like this, I learn so much in the meeting, but also before the meeting and after the meeting and watching what other meetings are going on in our building. And those are the things you can’t pick up as well when you’re working on video conferencing. So all that ambient information is back and that feels really energizing.
Jim Keane: (03:28)
You also get this emotional lift, just the idea of you’re around people. And here at Steelcase, because of the new mask guidelines, people who are fully vaccinated and have been for the last two weeks can work without masks. So we can smile at each other and people smile back. And that is such a natural human thing that gives us a boost of energy every day. This morning in our meeting, one of our marketing people who 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, in 15 months. And it feels amazing.” So I think it’s an exciting day. I also think there’s good economic benefits for the state of Michigan. As people return to offices, they come back to the cities and towns and they repopulate these urban centers, which helps restaurants and retail businesses and all the other parts of our economy that depend on people coming to work in order to thrive.
Jim Keane: (04:17)
As people think about returning to the office, I’ll give you three things to think about. The first of course is safety. So we follow the CDC guidelines from the start, we continue to do that in our factories and our offices. And I can tell you that it works. Second is productivity. As we come back to the office, work is going to be changed forever. There will always be people commuting into the office and people who continue to work from home. And as that happens, our meetings are going to feel different, and the nature of the work we do when we’re in the office is different, and the nature of the work we do at home is going to be different. And so our clients are making investments in those spaces and we’re helping them with those investments.
Jim Keane: (04:51)
And then finally, clarity. We have great clarity from the state now about what we’re supposed to do and the freedom we have to return to the office and the new mask rules. But a lot of employees are still waiting to hear clarity from their own business leaders. What’s expected of me? When will we come back to the office? And how exactly is that going to work? We’re happy to help anyone in Michigan who needs help on that. We’re willing to share how we did it, our communication vehicles, the tools we’ve used. If anyone needs help understanding how to move through that process, we’re happy to do so.
Jim Keane: (05:20)
Finally, I want to thank the governor and her staff for her leadership during the crisis, and for getting us to this place today where we have cases falling in Michigan, we have vaccination rates rising in Michigan, and we can bring people back to offices safely. We can give people that choice again to work the way they want to work. We believe we’re better when we’re together, and today we’re together. So thank you. Please welcome Governor Whitmer.
Governor Whitmer: (05:44)
Thanks, Jim. That’s great. All right. Well, I want to thank Jim and the team here at Steelcase. We had a tour before we got started, and it’s a phenomenal place, and no better place to go talk about returning to the office than the place that knows the office better than anyone. I also want to acknowledge Sara Armbruster, the executive vice president here at Steelcase. I am so glad to be joined by a number of people; Susan Corbin, our director of LEO; Andy Johnston, the vice president at Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce; of course, Mayor Bliss who’s joined us; Senator Brinks; Peter Dickow from Senator Peter’s office; and Wayman Britt, the county administrator. So glad that you are all with us. Thank you.
Governor Whitmer: (06:27)
So today we are here to talk about Michigan getting back to normal, back to work, as we emerge from this pandemic together. We’ve made remarkable progress in our battle with COVID-19. Thanks to vaccines, life is starting to really get back to normal now. So let’s take a second just to recognize the hope and energy that Jim was just describing. It is palpable. And I also want to think back to December when we saw the first vaccines rolling out of Portage, Michigan, and the pride we felt, and when we saw the first healthcare worker get that vaccine. And think about the incredible scale of the challenge that we were facing. In just five months, over 60% of American adults have had their first shots, including over 57% of Michiganders. And our recovery is continuing to pick up steam.
Governor Whitmer: (07:26)
Our unemployment rate is now 4.9%, which is a full point below the national average. In the past year, unemployment has fallen by nearly 80%, and we’ve added 968,000 jobs over the last year. We still have work to do. There’s no question. And we’re still short of where we were prior to the pandemic. Our economic recovery is going well, but we can do a lot more to invest in our families, our small businesses, and communities, to help them succeed. Michigan and America’s coming back, and we’re going to come back stronger than ever. Last Thursday, I announced steps that we are taking to emerge from…
Governor Whitmer: (08:03)
Last Thursday, I announced steps that we are taking to emerge from the pandemic. On June 1, all outdoor capacity limits and the curfew on bars and restaurants will be lifted. Indoor capacity will be raised to 50% for all indoors spaces, including stadiums, funeral homes, and wedding venues among other things. Vaccinated people will no longer need to wear a mask in public, whether you’re indoors or outdoors. And unvaccinated Michiganders will continue to need to wear a mask when they are indoors. If a business requires masking for everyone who’s entering, we need to recognize they have the authority to do that and to support them and abide by that.
Governor Whitmer: (08:42)
On July one, the indoor capacity limit and broad gatherings and mask orders will be lifted. I’m excited about this. I know we’re all excited to spend time this summer with our families and friends and get back to the things that we love doing. Long dinners, bonfires by the lake, maybe even taking in a concert with friends. And we can enjoy the occasions and ceremonies that we had to forego last year, celebrating birthdays and graduations, family reunions and weddings together. The reason we can take these steps is because the people of our state stepped up and took this moment seriously and kept themselves in their families and their communities safe. And I want to thank the people of our state for getting vaccinated and socially distancing and masking up when that was so important to do. The safe, effective vaccines are the main reason that we are in this moment and emerging from this pandemic. The CDC’s updated mask guidance that was announced two weeks ago, was supported by data that vaccines give us robust protection against infection and serious illness. And that vaccinated people do not pose a significant risk of passing the virus on to others. So as we have done from the beginning of the pandemic, we’re heeding the advice of the best medical experts in the country and listening to the science.
Governor Whitmer: (10:02)
In addition to our new COVID guidelines, I am proud to announce today that [MIOSA 00:10:06] is taking several steps to help businesses return to normalcy. Back in October of 2020, MIOSA issued emergency COVID rules, laying out specific mitigation measures, helping businesses keep patrons and their workforce safe. These emergency rules had an expiration date of October of 2021, meaning they would expire automatically unless formalized into permanent rules. In early 2021, MIOSA began the process of making some of the emergency rules permanent to continue keeping people safe from COVID. They started the process because they did not know, none of us knew even a few months ago, how effective these vaccines would be, both bringing down cases, and hospitalizations and keeping our cases low.
Governor Whitmer: (10:58)
So now here we are, five months later, we know a lot more. We know that vaccines are very effective. And as a result, the CDC updated their guidance to say that vaccinated people no longer need to mask up or socially distance indoors or outdoors unless required by their employer or a business. Michigan has adopted these standards soon after the CDC’s announcement. And now MIOSA is ready to move on to help businesses adjust too. And under are back to normal plan, thanks to Michiganders who got their shots, all employees can return to work in person effective today.
Governor Whitmer: (11:34)
Now let’s remember many companies have phased in return to work, 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 childcare and the work life balance and ongoing personal health concerns. There are incredible employers across our state who are working to make sure we make these workplaces energizing and safe for all. As for emergency rules that are still in effect through October 21, MIOSHA has updated them and effective today to integrate the CDC’s latest guidelines so that under these revised emergency rules, employers can now allow fully vaccinated employees to work normally without masks or distancing requirements. The cleaning and sanitization requirements have been softened accordingly and industry specific requirements have been eliminated.
Governor Whitmer: (12:33)
And that means for examples, that restaurants and bars can choose to reopen common areas like pool tables and dance floors. Employers are still required to have a written COVID-19 preparedness and response plan that ensures compliance with the CDC guidance so that workers can come to work with confidence that they are going to be safe. These new rules are the result of so many productive conversations between business owners, labor, workers, medical experts, including MIOSHA, back to office work group. And they’ve done incredible work over the past few months. We expect President Biden, OSHA to offer their own guidelines that incorporate lessons learned from COVID. And we will look to integrate the recommendations into MIOSHA when that becomes finalized.
Governor Whitmer: (13:26)
In the meantime, these slim down emergency rules will ensure Michigan workers feel safe at work and our shared prosperity depends on the confidence and safety of our workers. And that’s why it’s so important we get this right. Together, we are eliminating the once in a century virus, and now we’re poised to jumpstart our economy and power it up to new highs. We have a lot of work to do, but I know that we are up to it. Last week, Republican leaders in the legislature and I announced a bipartisan agreement to work together, to pass a budget and invest funds available to Michigan, into our schools and small businesses and communities. Currently, we still have money that was sent to us by the Trump administration at the end of last year. We have billions headed our way from the Biden administration and the American Rescue Plan, including $5.7 billion to the state, $4.4 billion to local governments and $3.9 billion to our schools. And we have a state budget to pass that has been bolstered by higher than expected revenues. In fact, we went from a $3 billion projected deficit to a $3.5 billion surplus.
Governor Whitmer: (14:38)
Now there’s no denying that Michigan’s had a hard year, but we’ve had some incredibly good news recently. From the re-emergence of our ability to go back to work, to this good news on our budget front, which is a reflection of how seriously our people took this pandemic, the management through the pandemic, and of course, consumer competence because of both those things. So I know that after all the sacrifice and pain that people have felt and businesses felt from March, 2020, we are now ready to get back and ready to take Michigan to the next level.
Governor Whitmer: (15:12)
So we’ve been tested and we are tough. And as I often say, tough times don’t last but tough people do. Michigan is bursting at the seams with possibility. It’s our job in state government to harness the boneless energy of our people, our businesses, and our communities, and channel it into big projects, bold initiatives, and of course, fundamentals that put us on a path to prosperity. Together, thanks to the millions of Michiganders who have gotten vaccinated, and to those on the front lines of this pandemic, we’re going to make sure that Michigan emerges from this pandemic stronger than ever. With the resources we have, we can make lasting transformative investments in our future, we can create tens of thousands of good paying jobs, we can do build up our crumbling infrastructure, support our kids in schools, and get back to a new normal, a stronger, more resilient state.
Governor Gretchen Whitmer: (16:02)
… new normal, a stronger, more resilient state. So I say, let’s get it done. Sooner, we’ll have the Independence Day and summer that we all crave, and that is all good news. With that, I will hand it over to Susan Corbin, the director of Labor and Economic Opportunity.
Susan Corbin: (16:22)
Thank you, Governor. First, I just want to thank Steelcase for their contribution to the task force that the governor mentioned and loaning Hannah Naltner from their staff to us to put some work into that Return-to-Office task force that’s available on our website.
Susan Corbin: (16:42)
Since the first COVID outbreak in our state last year, the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity and MIOSHA have been at the front lines of the effort to keep workers safe from COVID. The MIOSHA emergency rules have not only protected employees and given them confidence that their workplace is safe as possible, the rules also gave employers the clear guidance they needed to protect their workers.
Susan Corbin: (17:08)
Today, we know that the single best way for everyone to protect themselves, their employees, or their coworkers from COVID is to get vaccinated. And thanks to the strong leadership of Governor Whitmer, we’ve made enormous progress in getting our vaccination rates up. Because of the progress all of us together have made, I’m thrilled to announce that we are updating our MIOSHA emergency rules so that they reflect the latest health guidance and allow employers to consider relaxing face covering and social distancing requirements for fully vaccinated employees.
Susan Corbin: (17:45)
We believe that employers want to do the right thing for their employees. Throughout the pandemic, MIOSHA has focused on providing employers with the resources they need to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Providing education and assistance to employers so that they can do things the right way is a far more effective way to protect workers than citing employers after they have gotten things wrong. That’s why MIOSHA has been focused on education and outreach to business groups and employers, has provided over six million in safety grants, and performed free consultations at over 4,000 workplaces.
Susan Corbin: (18:28)
The new rules effective today are clear and consistent and bring regulatory certainty for employers while reflecting updated public health guidance. The MIOSHA rules are minimum standards. Some employers may want to keep mask rules in place a little bit longer to protect their employees or their customers, and that’s okay. We know that many employers plan to keep remote work in place a little bit longer, and that’s okay too. We know that many workers are still nervous about coming back to work. We all have family, friends and coworkers that haven’t been able to get vaccinated yet and have underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to infection even if they are vaccinated. We’ve got to do everything we can to protect these people. While we continue to see increasing vaccination rates across Michigan, we encourage employers to understand what’s happening in their community because not every region or every workplace is as far along with vaccinations as we’d like.
Susan Corbin: (19:35)
Finally, for all those employees that continue to be concerned about COVID-19 in their workplace, the best mitigation tool is vaccination. The rules do help reduce the likelihood of transmission. But to keep yourself safe, your coworkers safe, and our families safe, please get that shot. The Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity will remain committed to doing everything we can to keep Michigan workers, customers, and communities safe. We’ll also make sure we’re doing everything we can to get our state back to work.
Susan Corbin: (20:09)
Now, I’d like to turn it over to Andy, the vice president for Governmental Affairs with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce. I also want to thank the Grand Rapids Chamber for all of the guidance and thoughts in terms of how this is impacting their members during this past year.
Andy Johnston: (20:31)
Thank you, Susan. And yeah, I want to share my thanks to Acting Director Susan Corbin and her department for keeping the business community updated on a weekly basis during and very ongoing and ever changing situation. We truly appreciate the opportunity to provide input on behalf of the business community.
Andy Johnston: (20:50)
I am Andy Johnston, vice president of Government Affairs for the Grand Rapids Chamber. I appreciate the opportunity to be here on a really exciting day. It’s a big day for business in Michigan after what’s been an extremely uncertain and difficult time. It’s exciting that Michigan has reached this point that feels like we’re moving out of this pandemic and returning to a sense of normalcy, where our job creators, our entrepreneurs, and our employees can begin to fully restart and engage every sector of the economy.
Andy Johnston: (21:19)
We’re pleased that Governor Whitmer and MIOSHA have moved forward in lifting the permanent rules that were being proposed and updating the current emergency rules to create guidance that’s going to be certain and also have flexibility that’s needed for worker safety as we continue to learn from new data. This added level of clarity is going to allow us to be competitive and puts us on track for a prosperous recovery. We know our Grand Rapids Chamber members and businesses across Michigan have stepped up to prioritize their employees health. They’ve had over a year to prepare for what a safe return to office looks like, and they are ready implement it.
Andy Johnston: (21:58)
Like was mentioned, not every office is going to come back right away and as was said before, that’s okay. But we look forward to seeing them come back because from Grand Rapids to Lansing, Detroit to Marquette, it’s going to be wonderful to see our office buildings and downtowns reactivated and re-invigorated. As was mentioned, the return to office brings increased productivity, innovation, collaboration, and a social environment that also contributes to a positive mental health status. It’s also going to support many of the struggling restaurant and retail businesses in our downtowns. If you’re a job or a business owner and you’re bringing your employees back, maybe think about giving a gift certificate to that local restaurant or that local retail shop so that they can also participate in the recovery.
Andy Johnston: (22:45)
Michigan is home to the world’s leading office furniture manufacturing companies, companies like Steelcase that have researched, innovated, and defined what returning to office is going to look like in this new reality. We’re excited that they’re going to have this opportunity to put this know- how into action for the good of our state and its citizens. In fact, Michigan companies are going to help define what it’s going to be for the world to get back to work.
Andy Johnston: (23:12)
This is a key next step in our recovery, and we’re confident that Michigan’s businesses of every size and industry are prepared to bring office workers back and keep their employees and communities safe. We are proud of the collaboration with the governor and her team, and are excited to be working together to create a business climate that’s thriving and prosperous for all. We share the governor’s optimism on this exciting, pure Michigan summer ahead of us, the weddings, the conventions, the events, including a great art prize we’re looking forward to in Grand Rapids now. I think it’s going to be just incredible. And so, we’re equally as excited and optimistic about what lies ahead for our economy and really excited to see where Michigan’s entrepreneurs and job creators are going to take us next. Thank you.
Hey, everyone. We’ve got time for just a few questions about return to work and update of COVID guidance.
We’ve got time for just a few questions about return to work and updated COVID guidance.
Governor Whitmer: (24:05)
All right. Rick, your hand’s not up, but since you’re local, I’m going to call on you first.
Governor, the changes made today leave some indoor capacity limitations in place. Are you concerned that there will be confusion about that? Because the mask mandate came as kind of a surprise, I think you admitted, even to you and your administration, certainly to us. But people are starting to gather. I know there was picture of you over the weekend at a gathering with friends that [inaudible 00:24:36] had circulated. Are you concerned that there will be confusion about those limitations, given that, for example, people at Steelcase have come back at 100% today, but restaurants and other indoor venues are still limited?
Governor Whitmer: (24:51)
Yeah, I am, Rick. I think that that’s something that we’ve worked to try to make sure we’re very clear. This is a month. It’s from June 1 to July 1 that we are transitioning, and that’s why dropping a lot of the protocols, especially for outdoor events, we know that’s the safest place to be. If you are vaccinated, you’re safe without a mask indoors or outdoors. But for those who are unvaccinated, and we don’t know, frankly, who is vaccinated and who’s not, transitioning from a 50% with no curfew to 100% in just a month period is going to be a quick transition. We’re hoping that people can understand that when you’re indoors, it’s inherently a little bit riskier, especially if you’re not vaccinated. And so, we’re continuing to do our work and getting people vaccinated. We’re continuing to work with employers to make sure that they’ve got a thoughtful plan for re-engagement.
Governor Whitmer: (25:47)
One of the things that Jim mentioned to was, we were touring, here at Steelcase, they have kind of a philosophy of invite. How’s it go, Jim?
Governor Whitmer: (25:58)
Encourage, and then expect. And so, it’s a phased-in kind of approach that they’ve been socializing with their workforce. I know different businesses are taking different tacts, but I think that there’s much to learn. And none of us is perfect, but we’re doing our best to make sure that we do this in the safest way, knowing that July 1, we will be back to normal. And that’s a good thing. Yeah, go ahead, Beth.
Governor, do you think [inaudible 00:26:24] should be fined for allowing you to violate his policies? And if not, do you think other fines against other businesses should be pulled back that were issued by [inaudible 00:26:34]?
Governor Whitmer: (26:36)
So I’ll just say this. I put out a statement, I wrote that statement. It was an honest mistake and I have apologized for it. I think that we have specifically not gone forward and penalized businesses that are trying to do the right thing. It’s those that have flouted and put people’s safety at risk that are the most concerning. But I don’t know that there’s a lot more for me to add at this point in time, other than those former Spartans, or I guess you’re a Spartan for life, who know the establishment, should be aware that it’s now a restaurant, and they have pretty good pizza. Next question.
We can do one or two more.
Governor Whitmer: (27:19)
Going off that, a lot of the response I’ve heard over the last 24 hours has been rules for thee, not for me. And now we’re relaxing some rules, we’re a month away from everything being lifted. Is there a worry that there’s going to be push back and just people are going to let go right away?
Governor Whitmer: (27:39)
Eric, over the last year and a half, we’ve seen there’s always a pushback, right? In this environment, there is no making everyone happy on any issue. I’m doing the best that we can, following the science to make sure that we keep people safe. We have done an incredible job getting people vaccinated. You can almost walk into any vaccination place now without an appointment and just get vaccinated on the spot. We know that people who are eager to get back into the workforce are getting vaccinated. They’re seeing their friends and coworkers get vaccinated, and having more confidence. We know too that there are a lot of people that still have some questions, and that’s okay. We want to answer their questions. We want people to know that these vaccines are safe and effective. So the best way to get back to normal with the confidence that people are going to be safe.
Governor Whitmer: (28:24)
So gathering with people that are all fully vaccinated, whether you’re inside or outside, is a safe thing to do. And I know we’re all looking forward to being able to do that. So the more people that can get vaccinated, the better. So if you have been vaccinated, tell your friends and loved ones. Tell them the freedom and the confidence that comes with it. Tell them the plans you’re making this summer, going to a concert, maybe. It just dawned on me that that’s something we can do, and I hadn’t even thought about that aspect, and that’s something that I know I would love to do that. Come to ArtPrize here in Grand Rapids this fall. All right, Eric, you’re done with your question. All right. Yes? Yes?
Speaker 1: (29:05)
[inaudible 00:29:05] You said that you’re agreeable to let’s figure out the budget and evolve another agreement [inaudible 00:29:17].
Governor Whitmer: (29:20)
Well, first and foremost, I hope that there’s never another order personally. Contrary to think some of the rhetoric out there, it has been a hard year and three months. None of these orders was issued lightly. All weighed very heavily. There’s not a governor in the nation that has had to do this and has had anything but a lot of angst around every decision that they’ve had to make. I know because I talked to a lot of them on both sides of the aisle. Articulating what future input from the legislature looks like around epidemic orders, I think is something that we can now do with an understanding that this is largely behind us. We’ve learned some lessons. Perhaps there are some ways to do that. And that’s what we have agreed to do. And I think that that’s a good thing.
That’s all the time we have. Thanks, folks.
Governor Whitmer: (30:18)
Okay. Thanks everybody. Thanks, Jen. Thank you. [crosstalk 00:30:27]