COVID-19 is breaking out on farms across the nation. Sure, the CDC has creating guidance for COVID prevention in the agricultural industry, but that is exactly what it is – mere guidance aka not mandatory. In the absence of strong federal leadership in this arena, some states are stepping up to the plate with their own mandatory rules for COVID testing on the farm. On August 3rd, Michigan, which has experienced a high number of coronavirus cases, many on farms, issued an order requiring farms with 20 or more non-family member workers on site at a time to test all workers by the end of August. The order also requires these farms to implement a routine screening and testing program in the coming months.
This order didn’t go over so well amongst everyone in the states’ agricultural industry. As The Counter reports, the Michigan Farm Bureau immediately expressed their dissatisfaction, and the group’s attorney said they had enlisted 200 farm operations to fund a lawsuit to fight the order, and fight the order they did. Shortly thereafter, a motion to halt the enforcement of the order was before Judge Maloney in Michigan’s Western District Court.
Interestingly, the basis of the motion was that the order requiring mandatory COVID testing disproportionally affected Latinos and that it was therefore a civil rights violation to “coerce” farmworkers to submit to testing. On August 14th, Judge Maloney denied the motion, finding that there was no legitimate civil rights violation found.
It is understandable that there would be dissatisfaction with this order. COVID testing can be expensive and time-consuming for farm employers to administer, even despite the availability of government grants to offset the cost. But, claiming that this is a racial issue and not a financial might be a little disingenuous, possibly? There’s no doubt that systemic racism within farm work is a real problem we need to confront. But, that’s not what the challenge to mandatory testing was really all about.
In the aftermath of serious outbreaks on farms in its state, Washington also issued a similar proclamation on August 19. So far it seems there are no similar legal battles against it but time will tell. Hopefully we can find a way forward where farm business owners don’t have to choose between the financial health of their farm and the physical health of their vital workers.