Farmworkers leaving Michigan due to state’s COVID-19 testing mandate

Michigan Farm Bureau
In Grand Junction, late-season blueberry harvest usually makes up for financial losses incurred during the previous months. True Blue Berry Management LLC’s Shelly Hartmann (far left), Manuel Morales Jr., and Doraelia Nunez discuss farmworker testing and rights.

GRAND JUNCTION – Michigan farmworkers are leaving unpicked fields and orchards. They say it’s driven by the state’s new emergency order requiring mandatory testing for COVID-19. 

In Grand Junction, late-season blueberry harvest usually makes up for financial losses incurred during the previous months. The problem is True Blue Berry Management LLC’s lost roughly 150 employees who’ve chosen to leave its employment or go to work in states with no mandatory COVID-19 testing policies. 

In Bangor, a similar story: 14 employees walked away from Heritage Blueberries LLC. 

As problems add up for farmworkers at Smeltzer Orchards Co. LLC and True Blue Farms, plaintiffs in a case against the Michigan Department of Human and Health Services, Michigan farm operators now worry about labor availability in 2021. 

“Everybody’s affected,” said Manuel Morales Jr., plant manager of True Blue’s packaging plant in Grand Junction. He currently supervises about 40 employees.  

“They don’t want to do the test. I don’t want to do the test,” Morales told Michigan Farm News. “I worked earlier this year down in Florida for about three to four months. … Florida didn’t have to (mandatory test), why does Michigan have to? This governor wants us to do it, and it’s only the Latinos. Why? I work with other American people here; they’re not getting tested.”  

Earlier this month, farm employers and employees challenged an Aug. 3 emergency order by MDHHS, which mandated certain-sized employers of migrant or seasonal workers to test workers for COVID-19, a respiratory illness.  

Following the order, the Grand Rapids-based law firm Varnum LLP filed a complaint on behalf of the farmworkers.  

However, a recent ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan upheld state testing requirements, which affect about 75,000 Latino farmworkers, according to the Michigan Farm Bureau. An appeal on the ruling was filed Aug. 25 by Varnum attorney Ronald DeWaard.  

“We are appealing the district court’s decision to the Sixth Circuit, where we will ask for an ‘Injunction Pending Appeal’ to stay MDHHS’ emergency order pending a full briefing on why the MDHHS emergency order unconstitutionally discriminates against Latinos,” he said.  

Meanwhile, employers who do not abide by rules face financial penalties, while farmworkers who refuse testing will be prohibited from working until they agree to the testing. 

Michigan Farm Bureau’s Manager of Government Relations, Rob Anderson, said, “The hundreds of signatures received from agricultural workers in support of the Order’s challenge demonstrate that this effort is both grassroots and worker-driven.  From the earliest days of this Order, farmworkers came forward to farmers and shared that they felt discriminated against and would not stand for mandatory testing.” 

Many Michigan farmworkers come from Florida, Georgia, and Texas, or through the H-2A guest-worker program.  

According to Rex Schultz of Heritage Blueberries, the workers like to move from crop to crop. 

Now, he said, “they're pulling out of the state; they're just leaving because they don't want to be a part of this.” 

Schultz asked his employees if they wanted to be tested. Most said no and are upset after testing began Aug. 24. 

Another Michigan operation lost roughly 30 farmworkers during apple harvest when it needs hundreds of migrant and/or H-2A workers. The farm asked to remain anonymous. 

“I think it's going to get worse,” Schultz said. “My biggest concern is — are they going to come back next year?”