Michigan is less than a week away from lifting nearly all COVID-related restrictions, according to Governor Gretchen Whitmer, with mask mandates and capacity limits ending on June 22.
But not everyone is celebrating.
Agriculture is one the few sectors that will still face orders that others will finally be free of, including COVID-19 testing requirements and the use of isolation housing for agricultural workers.
That’s a serious concern for people like Rex Schultz of Heritage Blueberries, who says continuing to mandate testing and isolation for agricultural workers hurts growers who are already competing for workers with states that don’t require testing.
“It’s frustrating that ag is being targeted - that’s how our workers feel,” said Schultz, who is also president of the Michigan Blueberry Advisory Committee.
“Last year when the mandated COVID testing came down during our most vulnerable time in our late season where we have the opportunity to recover losses from the midseason.”
With Michigan gradually beginning to lift some restrictions in the past few weeks, Schultz was hopeful the MDHHS testing order for agricultural workers would be rescinded. He says he was frustrated and disappointed when he found out that wasn’t the case.
“We got the press release from MDHHS and I’m saying, ‘wow this is almost as bad as last year if not worse’,” said Schultz.
“A big concern is how many workers are we going to end up with now because we’ll be ready to harvest here in a couple of weeks.”
While Schultz typically has around 50 workers during peak season, he’s worried this season could be a repeat of last year when he was down to 11 workers.
That shortage forced him to machine harvest his second round of picking for his late season variety, costing him substantial money.
He says the first thing his workers asked this year is if they will we have to go through testing again.
The new MDHHS order handed down last week finally accounts for the COVID vaccination status of agricultural workers, but it comes at a price.
Not only does the new MDHHS order maintain most of the previous order’s requirements, it actually expands the activities covered by the order while requiring testing of symptomatic individuals, even if they’re already fully vaccinated.
Unlike most other industries, even vaccinated housing residents and employees must be tested if exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or suspected exposure.
Among other requirements, under the new MDHHS order, housing operators must provide testing for any housing resident exhibiting the principal symptoms of COVID-19 or has suspected exposure to COVID-19, regardless of that individual’s vaccination status.
All other agricultural employers with more than 20 employees onsite must:
The new order also expands testing of housing residents and new employees to include children as young as 13 years old, down from the previous exemption of those 18 years and younger.
This order is effective immediately, giving farmers no lead time to adopt these regulations, which carry misdemeanor fines of up to $200, 6 months of jail time, or both.
“We’ve complied with all the requirements for PPE, all the cleaning supplies and masks that we supply to employees, and education and social distancing because we want a healthy workforce,” said Schultz.
“The mandates are hurting us in the ag industry.”