Throughout the pandemic Michigan employers have felt the sting of government interference. Those who didn’t follow Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s constantly changing rules faced serious fines and even closure. Now some are pushing back on citations, and exposing even more secrecy within this administration.
The Detroit News this week uncovered some alarming details in one investigation related to the city of Port Huron, including how a state workforce safety inspector burned (literally) documents and destroyed notes and emails related to the case. That alone calls for a close look at this agency’s practices and leadership.
Did anyone instruct Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration Inspector Matthew Hartman to take such curious action? And did he violate state policy or the law in destroying the evidence?
These are important questions that deserve answers. Setting records on fire while cases could still be appealed seems unusual, and the destruction leads the public to assume that they contained information that the agency didn’t want the public, or Port Huron, to know.
Late last month, MIOSHA, facing the threat of having Director Bart Pickelman deposed, filed to dismiss the citation against the city. Again, what information were they trying to keep secret?
In their role, MIOSHA inspectors are law enforcement officers. Notes and emails that contain information on how they built their case should be retained as long as a case is pending. We do not want a state that incinerates potentially exculpatory information while a case is still being adjudicated.
In the Port Huron case, MIOSHA was charged with enforcing Whitmer’s COVID orders and fining businesses and employers if they didn’t fully comply.
The agency, which falls under the Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, has levied more than 500 COVID fines and publicly reported the names of the businesses penalized through press releases.
The city of Port Huron decided to fight back and appeal the $6,300 fine it received in the summer of 2020 for reported violations of workplace safety rules.
City Manager James Freed referred to the case as a “sloppy attempt” to disparage employees and an example of MIOSHA’s harsh pandemic enforcement.
Freed noted the city’s legal fees totaled at least $15,000 — an amount many small business owners wouldn’t be able to swing.
The Legislature should take a close look into how MIOSHA conducted its investigations, and why emails and notes that relate to the case were incinerated.
House Oversight Committee chairman Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, has held hearings on the failings of the Unemployment Insurance Agency, also under the labor department, during COVID, and this has led to the recent resignation of the acting director, Liza Estlund Olson. He should now turn to MIOSHA.
MIOSHA will continue to play a large role in overseeing business compliance, and it will be the state agency to implement President Joe Biden’s impending vaccine and testing mandate on businesses with more than 100 employees.
Michigan’s businesses should have confidence they will be treated fairly, and at the very least, with transparency.