Birmingham chamber calls for state to #EndTheOfficeBan

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published April 6, 2021

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BIRMINGHAM — Students are back in classrooms and chefs are back in restaurant kitchens. Will office workers be the next group to return to normalcy and head back to their cubicles?

For the past year, much of Michigan has been working remotely at the direction of the state, which requires workers who are able to do their job remotely to do so, to minimize the transmission of COVID-19. Employers themselves are the ones who determine whether their staff can or cannot do their job from home.

But for some in an office setting, the ban has gone on long enough. Vincent Gotko, a CPA and partner at FMD in Birmingham, said his business is very much a relationship-based venture that requires cultivating trust with clients. He said that just can’t be done properly in virtual meetings.

“Face-to-face meetings with our clients and their personnel enable us to gain a clearer understanding of their service requirements. … Maintaining relationships with clients leads to higher degrees of understanding and trust. Maintaining relationships among staff leads to a happier workforce and employment environment,” Gotko said. “Having our office closed or out clients’ offices closed is hampering relationship development.”

Gotko said most of his 30-person staff is working from home, with just a “skeleton crew” in the office to process deliveries for clients.

Lots of other businesses are continuing to keep their personnel home while Michigan works toward vaccinating the majority of the population. But the more time that passes with workers at home, the tougher it is for businesses near an office district, like restaurants and retailers, according to Joe Bauman, the president of the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce.

“Michigan’s current restrictions on in-person work are some of the strictest in the nation, with the overwhelming majority of states leaving these decisions in the hands of employers and employees, as long as they implement safety protocols,” Bauman said in a prepared statement. “Our downtown restaurants and retailers rely on daytime office workers to support their businesses, and extending the ban an additional six months would have a devastating impact on central business districts throughout our communities and the entire state.”

The Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce is one of more than 20 chambers across the state that have signed on to support a campaign called “Reopen Michigan Safely,” calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to end the office ban and not renew the current emergency order set to expire April 14.

“Our goal is to avoid a situation whereby the governor unilaterally extends the one-size-fits-all (Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules for an additional six months,” Bauman said.

But according to Sean Egan, the director of COVID-19 Workplace Safety at the Michigan Department of Labor and Economics, there’s no “ban” to end.

“(The Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration) emergency rules do not prohibit in-person work. Rather, they require employers to determine whether remote work for employees is feasible to help ensure that COVID-19 transmission is mitigated to the maximum extent possible. Remote work is a strategy to minimize in-person contacts and is included in guidance from (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and federal OSHA to protect employees in the workplace,” Egan said in an email. “Employers must implement COVID-19 safety measures, which include social distancing, face coverings, health screenings and other measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

He added that the Department of Labor and Economics is in the process of establishing an advisory committee composed of public and private-sector experts to advise the administration on a phased return to in-person office work. The group will take into account the trajectory of the pandemic — metrics like positivity rates and hospitalizations — along with vaccine progress and personal protection measures to establish a clear set of guidelines if another order is instated.

In the meantime, Bauman plans to continue advocating for in-person work environments where and when it’s safe. The chambers are using the hashtag #EndTheOfficeBan to promote their message.

Gotko hopes for a return to office life soon, before virtual interfacing causes “irreparable damage,” like the loss of one or maybe more clients.

“The fallout from not being able to have face-to-face interaction with our clients and staff is something we have been able to mitigate, but there is no doubt that our clients and staff have been impacted and are feeling the strain,” he said.

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