BIG Wins for Michigan Retailers in 2020; 2021 MRA Priorities

Amy Drumm, Vice President of Government Affairs for Michigan Retailers Association
Amy Drumm Vice President, Government Affairs

MRA Advocacy efforts paid dividends for members in 2020

By AMY DRUMM, MRA Vice President, Government Affairs

Now that 2020 is behind us, here is a recap of MRA’s significant wins for Michigan Retailers for the year and what’s on the docket for 2021. More details on this information and an extensive Public Acts and Veto bill table are included in MRA’s 2020 Year-End Legislative Report.

COVID-19 regulations and shutdowns consumed most of our 2020 advocacy efforts. MRA worked tirelessly negotiating with the governor’s office, the state’s health department, worker safety agency MIOSHA, and various other licensing agencies to reopen all retail doors this spring during the state’s Stay Home lockdown. We were successful in restarting curbside transactions and “retail-to-go” on April 24, reopening retail doors in Northern Michigan on May 22, reopening retail doors “by appointment” throughout Michigan on May 26, and eventually opening retail doors to 25% capacity starting June 5. On Oct. 9 capacity increased to 50% and then fell to 30% on Nov. 18 after a spike in positive COVID cases.

Following the election and with the onset of colder weather and increasing positive case numbers, we proactively reinforced the message that retail is safe, using the state’s own data that showed shopping can be done safely. While some industries were not as fortunate, MRA’s advocacy efforts and MRA members’ adoption of state-required safeguards allowed retailers to remain open through the critical holiday season. Gov. Whitmer and top health and safety officials have publicly recognized that shopping is safe thanks to MRA’s efforts and retailers continue to be open to the public. While it’s not been enough, MRA has done all we can to protect and support retailers throughout the pandemic.

Legislation that ensures businesses who follow COVID-19 requirements cannot be subject to frivolous lawsuits was another main focus for MRA in 2020. The legislation codified certain COVID workplace safeguards in return for offering businesses immunity from liability of claims that an employee or customer contracted COVID while at the business and suffered damages. Businesses receive immunity if they are doing their best to follow federal, state and local COVID requirements. It also ensures that businesses will be judged based on the requirements that were in place at the time – not using September science and orders to judge March or April actions. The bills additionally protect those who have manufactured PPE and sanitization products to help fight COVID-19. Businesses will not be protected, however, if they egregiously or blatantly violate the requirements; like forcing a worker to report to work if that person is sick.

A few year-end legislative items sought to make life easier for pharmacy operations, unemployment claims, and for businesses with employees working remotely. Approved earlier in the year via executive order, legislation was needed following the Michigan Supreme Court’s October action that invalidated the continuing use of executive orders. MRA worked with lawmakers and the administration to win approval of these three legislative items.

Both employers and displaced workers were interested in legislation granting six extra weeks of state pandemic unemployment benefits while also holding employers harmless for any COVID-related claims. The carefully negotiated legislation allows extra benefits to continue through March 31 and also temporarily applies to domestic violence victims. The bill included a requirement the benefits be funded through a $220 million supplemental appropriation. Unfortunately, the additional funding was vetoed by Gov. Whitmer. This decision may lead to some challenges when the employer-funded Unemployment Trust Fund runs out of funds and is forced to borrow from the federal government.

Legislation to remove a tax-related headache simplified personal property taxes for 2020 by assuming the location of that property in 2020 was the same in 2019. Meaning if employees are working remotely, businesses will not have to account for where the business property that is being used in employees’ homes is and file personal property taxes in those additional jurisdictions. The bill was signed into law and took effect on Dec. 30.

A four-year effort to complete work on legislation that would require most prescriptions to be sent directly to the pharmacy of the patient’s choice was quietly signed into law. The legislation has been a priority for MRA and seeks to reduce prescription fraud and errors. Winning final approval during a time when social distancing, more convenient methods of order pickups, and reduced contact made the legislation more relevant. Increased use of e-prescribing technology allows pharmacists and prescribers to track when and where a patient has filled a prescription, and to send reminders if the prescription has not been picked up, improving overall adherence rates. In states where the law includes penalties that ensure a majority of physicians are using the system, prescription errors, fake prescriptions, and opioid abuse have declined. The legislation will take effect on Oct. 1, 2021.

2021 MRA Priorities

As Michigan rolls out its vaccine distribution strategy, MRA will work with the state to ensure all Michigan pharmacies are able to assist with vaccinating the population. Pharmacies have expertise in this area, established trust with customers, and greater accessibility in hours and locations. Since retail stores remain open to the public, all retail workers should be eligible to receive the vaccine in one of the earlier phases. MRA has formally requested the state consider including all retail workers into Phase 1B and will continue advocating to protect frontline retail workers.

COVID-19 provides a real opportunity to reevaluate certain restrictive laws and rules that needed to be suspended to allow retailers to focus on providing critical services. Pharmacies requested greater flexibility for their operations. Grocery stores needed relief from bottle deposit takeback and fewer restrictions on delivery times to restock shelves. Curbside pickup spots needed to be approved more quickly. Youth employees were given more flexibility to work greater hours while schools were temporarily closed. All of these items and other loosened regulations should be reviewed to see if they should be made permanent.

MRA has defended against efforts to increase property taxes or make the appeals process more difficult for several years and will continue those efforts in 2021. With expected budget challenges, we expect the administration and others may look to tax increases to make up lost revenue. Other states have started looking to find additional tax revenue from “essential businesses” who they believe profited during the pandemic. That narrative is problematic because even those retailers who were allowed to remain open and did see increases in sales also incurred tremendous additional costs. MRA will defend against any attempts to increase taxes on “essential retailers.” This is one of the worst times to place additional cost burdens on retailers given the already fragile economic environment.

2020 saw a major shift in consumer shopping habits with online sales increasing at record rates. Adding safeguards to prevent the sale of fraudulent or stolen items online takes on even more importance. MRA seeks to amend Michigan’s Organized Retail Crime Act to include verification tools for vendors selling on online marketplaces and more ways to report/remove suspicious listings. These changes should be reasonable and not overly burdensome but will provide law enforcement an opportunity to follow up using reliable information.