Virus Safety Crackdown in Michigan Puts Small Farmers in a Bind

One of Covid-19’s victims could be 157 years old, and it might be the testing—not illness—that takes it down.

A seasonal and migrant worker testing mandate has Allan Overhiser worried his 300-acre South Haven, Mich., fruit farm will face its crucial September harvest short of the 30 seasonal laborers needed to hand-pick apples that have sustained his family business since 1863.

The testing order “sounds harmless, but it has a lot of implications,” Overhiser said in an interview. “It has me questioning whether or not it can be executed in a manner that would, quite frankly, allow me to not go broke.”

Michigan aims to limit the pandemic’s spread into rural communities by mandating novel testing and migrant worker quarantines. It’s an effort to balance protecting workers, stemming the spread of the virus, and avoiding excessive burdens on farmers who put food on American dinner tables.

The requirements may stymie the migrant and seasonal worker flow, impacting an estimated 5,000 agricultural and meat-processing operations in the state. Small family farms, grouped with corporations under the emergency order, fear a loss of workers that will doom their operations, while major companies, including Tyson Foods, Inc., and their unionized employees, are better positioned to ride out the mandate.

Daniel Acker/Bloomberg
Workers pick Gala apples at the Rasch Family Orchards farm in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“We are talking about a group of workers who are quite vulnerable, who are not well positioned to speak up for themselves,” Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Robert Gordon said in an interview. “We are talking about a virus that has had a horrible disparate impact by race.”

The disparate impact on Latinos is “enormous,” and one main reason has been “the spread of Covid in farm and food processing plants,” he said.

‘Little Notice,’ Unknown Turnaround

Under the order, new workers at agricultural businesses with 20-or-more people on a shift must receive a negative Covid-19 test result before they can start. Existing agricultural and meat processing workers must also have baseline tests, though these workers can stay on the job while awaiting testing results.

The state estimates this order will target operations that employ 50% of Michigan agricultural workers.

Migrant workers in housing camps must also receive another test in 10 to 14 days after arrival. Those who show symptoms must also be tested.

The Michigan Farm Bureau estimates the state, which tests 29,000 residents daily on average, would have to perform as many as 100,000 extra tests within weeks under this order.

“The Michigan emergency order does not address all the challenges of universal testing,” such as access to adequate resources and ample time to plan ahead, said Allison Crittenden, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s congressional relations director.

Farmers “need partners in this effort, not mandates given with little input from the people who will be affected most,” she added in a statement.

Even if tests are available, delays in results could sideline workers, and stress operations during harvest time. And if workers refuse testing—something farms say they’ll do—those laborers can’t work at all, according to state guidance.

These concerns are fueling a Michigan Farm Bureau recruitment effort for a legal challenge against the mandates.

The state health department’s Gordon said investigations of 11 food processing and agricultural operations for Covid-19 outbreaks necessitated the move. Latinos make up roughly 5% of the Michigan populace, but account for 8% of Covid-19 cases. That data is limited because race is unknown in 27% of positive cases.

“It is always a balance,” he said, “but we also need to ask, ‘Are there people where it’s particularly important where the state act because they’re not necessarily well positioned to act themselves?’”

Corporations Brace Themselves

Industry giants such as Tyson and Perdue Farms are readying their ample resources to satisfy Michigan’s new standards.

Tyson, the country’s largest meat processor, plans to partner with a medical clinical services company to assist its on-site occupational health team’s testing before the Aug. 24 deadline, a company spokeswoman said.

The corporation’s long-term strategy for its U.S. facilities includes testing on a weekly basis, and hiring a chief medical officer and additional nurses—a move supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

The union, which represents plant workers, is “urging all companies in the industry to follow Tyson’s lead and take immediate action to expand COVID monitoring,” said President Marc Perrone.

Jeff Tripician, president of Perdue Premium Meat Co., said his company will comply fully with the state emergency order, having already carried out testing in some facilities. Perdue acquired Alexander & Hornung, a processing and packaging plant in St. Clair Shores, Mich., earlier this year.

The corporation is also prepared if other governors issue similar mandates, Tripician added in a Thursday statement.

“This is a realistic request to keep employees safe,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what state.”

Congress Looks Forward

Many farms nationwide voluntarily put worker testing in place months ago, said Layla Soberanis, senior government relations representative for the National Farmers Union.

“They want to do the best that they can to protect their workforce,” she added in a Wednesday telephone interview. Congress could help by mitigating test kit costs, Soberanis said.

What Does a Coronavirus Test Cost? It Depends Where You Go

The Food Supply Protection Act (S. 4453) reintroduced Tuesday by Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is aimed at resolving the pricing issue. The bill would provide farmers and small-to-medium-sized food processors with funding to cover Covid-19 testing, personal protective equipment, and cleaning, among other expenses.

Still, “the spread of disease has significantly lessened at meatpacking plants” since federal agencies issued coronavirus-related health guidelines, Michael Zona, spokesman for Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), said in a statement. A virus testing system is “only one piece of the puzzle,” he said.

To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Ebert in Columbus, Ohio at aebert@bloomberglaw.com; Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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