Michigan becomes first state to require farmers and food processors to screen and test all employees for Covid-19

The emergency order, issued by the state’s health department, also applies to operators of migrant housing, where the virus has spread in close quarters according to The Counter, a nonprofit investigating newsroom. Five months into a surging pandemic, the order is perhaps the most proactive to date when it comes to protecting the people who make the food chain run—essential workers.

In the announcement, Robert Gordon, the state’s director of health and human services, cited 11 outbreaks in recent weeks in farm and food plants in Michigan, as well as the vulnerability of Latinos in the workforce, who account for 5 percent of Michigan’s population but 11 percent of positive cases.

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, meat plants quickly became hotbeds of transmission. Overall, more than 54,000 workers in meatpacking, food processing and farms have tested positive for the virus, and at least 232 have died, according to Leah Douglas at Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) News. Outbreaks have not been limited to the meat industry, however: A wide variety of food production and processing facilities have been affected, from Florida’s tomato farms to Washington’s apple orchards and fishing trawlers.

In response, some employers have finally taken it upon themselves to test and monitor workers. Some U.S. facilities have closed plants for deep cleaning and implemented measures like plastic barriers, mask requirements, and temperature checks. Tyson Foods, the Arkansas-based meat processor, recently announced it would conduct testing at all its plants, though that did not necessarily mean all workers would be tested. (The company confirmed to The Counter that, in its facilities in Michigan, it would comply with the statewide health order and conduct one-time tests of all workers at its three facilities there.) 

Still, changes have been mostly voluntary—and voluntary commitments aren’t effective, said Debbie Berkowitz, who was a chief of staff at the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) under President Obama, and is now a program director with the National Employment Law Project, a pro-labor group. Coronavirus continues to spread on farms and widely in meat plants, even where employers say they are following safety guidance.

“This new order requiring testing is so important to mitigating the spread of the disease among meat and farm workers, along with other required protections of social distancing, masks, and provision of hand sanitizers,” she wrote, in an email to The Counter. “Without mandates, Covid-19 has spread like wildfire, because many companies were not and many are still not implementing social distancing and other necessary measures.”

Michigan has been hit hard by the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 4,919 new Covid-19 cases in Michigan last week, raising the total to 84,707 confirmed cases and 6,478 total deaths, the seventh-highest rate among all states. Although the overall infection rate is much lower, per capita, than many states, the virus has spread throughout factories in Michigan, from a Kraft Heinz pickle factory to a JBS beef plant, as well as farms and greenhouses.

Michigan’s testing mandate applies to farmers who hire migrant or seasonal workers who live off-site, including H-2A guest workers; all greenhouse growers; and all meat, poultry and egg processors. Employers with 20 workers on site at a time, not including their families, must have test plans finished, conduct one-time baseline tests of all employees by August 24, and commit to ongoing screening and routine testing of new workers, as well as those with symptoms or suspected exposure to the virus.

In their plans, which must be made available to authorities upon request, employers are to indicate whether they will contract with a medical provider or laboratory for the tests, direct their workers to community testing, or request on-site test events from the state health department. Still, the state’s ability to provide tests for all those workers is far from certain, nor is it clear that all companies will be able to procure them on their own. Three weeks ago, a local news outlet reported that testing “demand far outweighs capacity” in northern Michigan, and last week, Whitmer and five other governors banded together to purchase three million tests, in an effort to lessen the burden on commercial laboratories that handle the bulk of of government-sponsored tests.

The high cost of testing may also become a factor. Prices can vary widely—with medical companies charging anywhere from $100 to $2,315 per coronavirus test, according to reporting by The New York Times. Employers are encouraged to apply for state grants to cover some costs, and migrant and seasonal workers can use emergency Medicaid to pay for tests, according to a health department memo. Costs cannot be passed onto workers.

If a worker tests positive, employers must follow CDC guidance on mitigating the spread, which include protocols on cleaning and notifying other workers. The emergency order specifies that employers must provide up to two weeks of paid leave while the worker is kept off the job.

Michigan’s farmers said they will resist the emergency order. Attorneys for the Michigan Farm Bureau said on a call that they have enlisted 200 farm operations to fund a lawsuit against the order, and will claim that a health order that mandates Covid-19 tests for migrant workers will disproportionately impact Latinos, and is therefore a civil rights violation, Bloomberg Law reports. The trade association, which represents Michigan’s second-largest industry, did not respond to requests for comment.

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