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Whitmer orders coronavirus protections for Michigan’s migrant farm workers

Migrant agricultural workers at Michigan farms will receive some protections meant to stem the spread of coronavirus in an executive order signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Tuesday.

The protections, which take effect immediately and run through June 29, are aimed at social distancing in housing and dining, and accommodations to isolate workers who test positive for COVID-19.

“It’s critical for Michiganders to have access to healthy and nutritious food grown right here in our state, and one of the best ways to ensure that is to make sure migrant agricultural workers are protected against the spread of COVID-19,” Whitmer said in the news release.

Each year, Michigan farms draw about 45,000 seasonal workers, many of whom are migrants. Those workers harvest the majority of the state’s fruits and vegetables, which provide about $1.4 billion in economic impact for the state.

 

Under the terms of the executive order, owners and operators of employer-provided migrant housing licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must create a COVID-19 response plan and provide personal protective equipment for their workers. 

Additionally, farm owners and operators must adhere to the following rules for congregate housing: 

  • Separate beds by at least six feet and encourage residents to sleep head-to-toe. 
  • Provide isolation housing for workers who received a positive result from a COVID-19 test unless the resident can effectively isolate themself in a single-family housing unit or family living unit that is part of a multifamily unit. 
  • Provide housing, dining, and bathroom facilities for COVID-positive residents who are isolated. 
  • Provide personal protective equipment for those delivering food and water to isolated COVID-positive residents. 
  • Arrange for COVID-19-affected residents to be evaluated by a medical provider. 
  • Adopt any additional infection control measures that are consistent with guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services. 

“We’re really happy to see the governor’s order,” said Diana Marin, supervising attorney of the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center. “Agricultural worker safety in the context of COVID is a public health issue, and it’s good to see that it’s front and center right now.”

Many of the protocols outlined in the executive order are  already being implemented by many Michigan farms in response to the pandemic, said Fred Lietz, of Lietz Farms in Berrien County, which grows blueberries, cucumbers, tomatoes and apples.

Leitz Farm employs around 230 workers and has been using congregate housing since mid-April for workers planting tomatoes and cucumbers. Leitz said he’s providing workers personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and  hand sanitizer, separated beds and isolation housing for his staff. 

“Many growers have been trying to stay ahead of [state executive orders],” said Leitz.  “We’ve already spent between $4,000 to $5,000 with masks and hand sanitizer and everything else so far. Everything keeps costing more money as we’re going through this, and revenues haven’t been keeping up with costs as it is.” 

While Leitz has been able to maintain social distancing in the houses so far, his staff has not reached its full capacity yet. While he is worried about having adequate space in the future, he emphasized the farm will do its best “to protect the safety of all workers.” 

Migrant worker advocates also expressed concerns Tuesday over the ability of farm workers to maintain social distance, both in the fields and in housing.  

“People are still working in pretty close proximity,” said Benjamin O’Hearn, staff attorney for Grand Rapids’ nonprofit Migrant Legal Aid. “In cases like asparagus harvest, it’s really hard to social distance when people are seated right next to each other.” 

While Marin described the order as a “powerful tool for farmworkers,” she stressed the need for government inspection and a lengthened time span for the order. 

“We hope this will go past June 30th and the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development is following through with outreach visits and inspection protocols,” Marin said. “Since agriculture has specific problem areas and workers are vulnerable for a variety of reasons, we want to make sure that we are protecting those rights and hopefully nothing gets watered down.”

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