FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2020, photo provided by the Michigan Office of the Governor, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich. The Michigan appeals court says Democratic Gov. Whitmer's emergency declarations and orders to curb the coronavirus clearly fall within the scope of her legal powers. The court in a 2-1 ruling Friday, Aug. 21, rejected a lawsuit filed by the Republican-led Legislature. (Michigan Office of the Governor via AP, File)

LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The state on Friday fined six Michigan businesses thousands of dollars for allegedly not protecting workers from the coronavirus, in what was described as an initial round of citations as regulators confront a five-fold increase in safety complaints during the pandemic.

After conducting inspections, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited the firms for infractions such as letting employees work near each other without masks and failing to do daily health screenings and or develop a COVID-19 preparedness and response plan. One of the businesses, Coop's Iron Works — a fitness center in Saginaw — opened in defiance of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order that has kept gyms closed to indoor activities for five months except in northern Michigan.

The Saginaw County Health Department referred the fitness club to the state when it became associated with nearly 20 cases of the virus, said MIOSHA Director Bart Pickelman. It was fined $2,100 for not training employees on infection-control practices, not keeping accurate records of attendees and other violations.

The five other businesses — United Shore Financial Services in Pontiac, a UPS distribution facility in Livonia, a Speedway gas station in Waterford, residential contractor Dan Freed in Eaton Rapids and Hills Roofing in Niles — were fined between $5,300 and $7,000. United Shore Financial Services has had nearly 100 employees test positive, according to Oakland County.

State officials said they have been doing outreach to employers about the governor's workplace safety orders, and a vast majority are protecting their employees. However, MIOSHA — which typically received 200 complaints a month before the outbreak — now is getting 1,000 per month. It has received more complaints since March than in all of 2018 and 2019 combined.

“We're focused on education first so employers know what they must do to safely reopen,” said Sean Egan, Michigan's COVID-19 workplace safety director. “But a failure to follow guidelines put everyone at risk.”

The businesses have 15 work days to contest the penalties. If they do not come into compliance, they could face “drastically" higher fines, Pickelman said.

A state Court of Claims judge in June ruled that the Democratic governor's coronavirus-related workplace orders included excessive penalties for employers in violation because they are governed by emergency laws that allow for lesser penalties: a 90-day misdemeanor and a $500 fine.

Pickelman said his agency is not directly citing the executive orders. Rather, he said, it is using a long-existing “general duty” clause that requires employers to furnish a workplace that is free of recognized hazards.

Steven Hill, owner of Hills Roofing, said he shut down his small business for two months in the spring until Whitmer allowed construction to resume. He said he cannot afford the fine and will appeal.

“The executive order is not law and cannot be enforced as law,” he said.

In a statement, UPS said it “cares deeply about keeping our employees safe and “we strongly disagree with the allegations,” saying it had taken extensive steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

The Associated Press left messages with United Shore Financial Services and Coop's Iron Works. It could not immediately reach the Speedway or Freed on Friday.

Also Friday, business groups said they sent a letter to the governor calling for the statewide reopening of gyms, theaters, bowling alleys and other industries that currently can be open just in northern Michigan. They also said those businesses should be able to defer their property taxes without being assessed interest and penalties, and they urged legislation to protect all businesses from "needless” lawsuits if they follow public health guidelines.

The governor vetoed related tax bills in July, citing budget implications.

“We ask that you and your Administration find ways to give businesses, especially those that remain closed, a fighting chance — and soon,” wrote the leaders of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Association of Michigan, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Grand Rapids Chamber.

Whitmer said this week she was reassessing the risk of reopening more Michigan businesses that have been closed for five months under her orders to curb the spread of the virus.


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