A June 1 executive order issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to implement additional, preventive COVID-19 measures to “save lives and keep the state’s agricultural sector running smoothly and consistently” has many Michigan specialty crop growers scrambling to look for the new definition of “smoothly.”
They’re also scrambling to secure additional worker housing to meet compliance requirements called for under EO 2020-0111, “Protecting the Food Supply and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers from the effects of COVID-19.”
That order requires farmers who provide housing for Michigan’s migrant agricultural workers to implement plans to prevent exposure to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, including additional social distancing for workers.
“The state must take proactive, preventive measures to create safer living conditions for migrant workers,” Whitmer wrote in the order. “Thus, to ensure the safety of migrant workers as well as the sustainability of Michigan’s food supply, it is reasonable and necessary to create temporary new requirements relating to the housing and working conditions of migrant and seasonal agricultural workers in the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Under the EO, all owners and operators of employer-provided migrant housing camps licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must provide workers/residents with the same safeguards as businesses are required to provide their workers while at work.
“Within two weeks of the effective date of this order, a camp must post its COVID-19 preparedness and response plan, consistent with recommendations in Guidance on Preparing Workplaces for COVID-19, developed by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration,” Whitmer stated in the order.
With a heavy focus on adhering to social distancing guidelines of six feet or more, not only in work environments, but also in housing, many affected producers are challenged to find additional housing accommodations, according to Sarah Black, general manager of Great Lakes Ag Labor Services, an affiliate labor services provider of Michigan Farm Bureau.
“Additional housing isolation requirements within the EO for suspected and/or confirmed COVID-19 positive workers are compounding the housing challenge,” Black said. “While the EO is well intended, the requirements are proving much more difficult to implement.”
Currently in effect until June 29, 2020, at 11:59 p.m., the EO requires, at a minimum, all camp owners and operators to separate beds by at least six feet or more in all directions wherever possible and encourage camp residents to sleep head-to-toe.
Isolation housing for COVID-19-suspected workers who have not received a positive result from a COVID-19 test is also required, according to Black, unless the COVID-19-suspected resident resides in a one-family housing unit or in a family living unit that is part of a multifamily unit and can effectively isolate themselves within the unit.
“Producers are also required to provide housing, dining, and bathroom facilities for COVID-19-confirmed residents separate from residents who are not COVID-19-confirmed,” Black added. “Those facilities may be shared with other COVID-19-confirmed residents.”
Producer frustration is warranted, according to MFB Ag Labor/Safety Specialist Craig Anderson, who noted that worker occupancy levels were specifically determined during pre-occupancy MDARD inspections for licensed housing in Michigan.
“These levels were established to minimize the spread of respiratory diseases when adopted,” Anderson said. “Most facilities are operated at, or near capacity. As Michigan has traditionally employed family groups, capacity is also limited to meet the needs of these families.”
According to Anderson, many Michigan specialty crop growers have followed a nationwide trend to dormitory-style facilities with community bathroom facilities and kitchen areas.
“To meet these new employer responsibilities many producers are faced with reducing the number of workers they can provide housing to,” Anderson added. “Some estimates suggest as much as a 30% to 50% reduction, depending on how the bed separation requirement is applied.”
Other specific requirements under the “Protecting the Food Supply and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers from the effects of COVID-19” EO:
The EO also requires the Michigan Department of Agriculture to use best efforts to conduct outreach visits to each migrant labor housing camp licensed under Part 124 of the Public Health Code within 20 working days of occupant arrival to review the rules issued pursuant to the order and any relevant DHHS guidance.
According to Black, the EO requirements have the status of regulations formally adopted by MDARD. “Any challenge to civil or criminal penalties imposed by MDARD for violating any of the rules will proceed through the same administrative review process as any challenge to a civil or criminal penalty imposed by the department or agency for a violation of its own rules,” she said.
COVID-19 preparedness and response plan requirement
As with other employers with on-site work activities, farm employers are required to develop and implement a detailed COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan, says Anderson.
In addition to providing information to the Grand Rapids-based Varnum Law firm’s Ag Labor Service for sample materials, MFB and GLALS have been also been working with multiple state agencies to simplify the compliance process for Michigan growers.
“We have been working with MIOSHA to post an Agricultural Plan on the MIOSHA website to assist in plan writing and housing requirements,” Anderson said. “Additionally we have been working with MDARD to develop a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan Editable Template including ag-specific requirements, best practices and suggestions to assist growers in meeting these new requirements.”
According to Anderson, MDARD field staff started conducting outreach activities combined with normal in-season reviews in mid-June to assist farms in meeting the EO requirements.
“Farmers should understand these are not regulatory inspections related to the EO, but they will be combined with normal in-season reviews,” he said.
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