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Politics & Government

Michigan Farm Workers, Farm Owners Disagree On Public Health Order Requiring COVID-19 Testing

United States Department of Agriculture
Farmworkers pick strawberries at Lewis Taylor Farms

Michigan farm workers are speaking out in response to a lawsuit backed by the Michigan Farm Bureau. Farm owners want to annul a public health order requiring employers to test farm workers for COVID-19. But workers say these measures are necessary to protect them from the virus.

Reportaje disponible en español aqui | Trabajadores agricolas de Michigan no estan de acuerdo con demanda de las compañias agricultoras

On August 3rd, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), Director Robert Gordon issued an emergency order requiring coronavirus testing for all agricultural and food processing employees. The order applies to all employers of migrant or seasonal workers, and those working in greenhouses and meat, poultry and egg processing facilities.   

All employers with more than 20 employees on site at a time are required to test all workers for COVID-19. The order states employers must test all workers as a one-time baseline testing, then test all new workers before they begin any in person work, and test any employee with coronavirus symptoms or exposure.  

That order was met with a lawsuit backed by the Michigan Farm Bureau filed in Grand Rapids, claiming the public health order discriminates against Latinos.  

“The order clearly targets the Latino community, and the state has been really clear that they’ve singled out this minority class,” said Allison Eicher, an attorney for the Michigan Farm Bureau in a statement. Eicher points out that the order targets the industry since the only other industry subject to mandatory testing for work is nursing home workers.  

“If the nursing home worker chooses not to be tested, they still get to go to work; they just can't interact with patients,” Eicher said. “If a farmworker chooses not to be tested, they don't get to work until they can provide a negative test. That's what is so shocking to the industry — it's just a blatant targeting of migrant farmworkers."   

Diana Marin, an attorney with the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center says the lawsuit does not represent the best interests of Michigan farm workers. 

“The lawsuit seeks to stop the implementation of an order that will help flatten the curve and reduce coronavirus infections not just in the agricultural sector but throughout Michigan,” said Marin. 

In response to the initial lawsuit, the United Farm Workers?of Michigan and the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center filed a legal brief on behalf of farm workers.  

Juana has been working in Michigan as a migrant farm worker for the last fifteen years and is one of the farm workers being represented in the brief. We’re only using her middle name to protect her identity. She contracted COVID-19 back in April while working as a poultry farm worker and had to take more than a month off to recover from the illness.  

“If this order had been in effect in April I would have received the COVID-19 test earlier and I would not have had to miss paying my rent, one months’ worth of rent,” Juana explained.  “The government has helped agricultural companies financially during the pandemic but when farm workers were classified as essential workers we did not receive the essential pay and we weren’t treated as essential workers.”  

Juana added that when the pandemic first began she had to use her own money to purchase personal protective equipment just to go work.  

“Farm workers need COVD-19 testing if they are exposed or sick with the virus,” she said. 

While the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan denied the industry request for an emergency preliminary injunction, the industry plaintiffs in the suit have now filed an appeal of that ruling. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit Court is scheduled to rule on the appeal this week. 

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said The United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan would rule on the appeal. The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is scheduled to rule on the appeal.

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