In a first, Michigan orders farms and meatpacking plants to test workers for Covid-19

The state’s agricultural and food processing companies must test all workers by the end of the month—and commit to routine testing in the future.

Last week, Michigan became the first state in America to require farmers and food processors to routinely 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. 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.

“The men and women who work in our fields and food processing plants are at particular risk for Covid-19, and they need and deserve protection,” Gordon said, in a statement. The order is intended to reduce the spread in Michigan communities, and reduce the pandemic’s disparate impact on Latinos, he added.

“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.”

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. 

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.

“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.

Still, Michigan has been unusually proactive in passing rules to stop the spread, particularly in farms and meat plants, where employees work in close quarters; the new emergency health order is just the most recent example. In June, Whitmer ordered safety rules in migrant labor housing, including six feet of distance between beds, separate rooms and dining facilities for infected residents, and to provide medical evaluations through the local health department. The next month, she commanded meat and poultry plants to conduct health screens, require face coverings and shields, slow or reengineer processing lines, and end incentives for sick workers who stay on the job. Businesses must also inform employees—as well as the local health department—if they were exposed to the virus on the job.

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.

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 today, 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 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. 

“It is unfortunate that the Michigan Farm Bureau is opposing these efforts to keep agricultural employees safe, and that some in the industry have even advised employers to cancel planned testing events, choosing instead to contemplate litigating workers’ protections.”

If a worker tests positive, employers must follow CDC guidance on mitigating the spread, which includes 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. 

The order also applies to migrant housing operators. The landlords must also conduct one-time baseline testing, and routinely test new arrivals or anyone with a 100.4-degree fever or other symptoms or suspected exposure. New arrivals must be tested within 48 hours, live in separate housing for 14 days, and submit to a second test. If a resident tests positive, the state may be responsible for providing isolation or quarantine housing. Children under 18 are exempt.

Michigan’s farmers said they will resist the emergency order. On Thursday, 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. 

“More assistance will be required to help farmers overcome the unique challenges agriculture faces in preventing and controlling the spread of Covid-19.”

Gordon, the state health director, rejected the premise of the lawsuit, and said in a statement to The Counter that delaying tests, in the face of a pandemic that has already killed 6,000 Michiganders, would be “dangerous.”

“It is unfortunate that the Michigan Farm Bureau is opposing these efforts to keep agricultural employees safe, and that some in the industry have even advised employers to cancel planned testing events, choosing instead to contemplate litigating workers’ protections,” he said. “We are confident in the legality of our order.”

Whether or not that unusual argument prevails, agribusiness advocates have been vocal about the need for government support to protect farm employees from the coronavirus. In July, the American Farm Bureau Federation urged Congress to provide federal funding for tests and safety equipment, and to secure additional housing to isolate infected farmworkers. In a letter to House and Senate leadership, the group wrote that routine testing is “beyond the financial reach of many farms,” and that two-week quarantine lodging is “cost-prohibitive.”

“Granted, several federal programs have been put in place to help farmers recover lost income, but they generally only reimburse pennies on the dollar. More assistance will be required to help farmers overcome the unique challenges agriculture faces in preventing and controlling the spread of Covid-19,” the letter concluded. 

Farmers and housing providers seeking information on the order can visit this state website for details.