BEAR LAKE — Leovijildo “Leo” Magana started a family here. He made a living here. He learned English here. But now he is one of many Latino farmworkers feeling unwelcomed here in Michigan.
Farm employers and employees are challenging an Aug. 3 emergency order by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The order mandates employers of migrant or seasonal workers to, among other things, test all workers for COVID-19, a respiratory illness.
Failure to do so carries financial penalties for the employer. Workers who refuse to take the test are prohibited from working.
Employed at West Wind Orchards LLC, near Bear Lake, Magana moved from Mexico to the United States in 1997 seeking better wages, a higher standard of living and a brighter future for his family.
He and other plaintiffs — like farmworkers from the Sparta-based Riveridge Produce Marketing Inc. and the Grand Junction-based True Blue Berry Management LLC — argue the state is racially discriminating Latino farmworkers by mandating testing requirements.
Grand Rapids-based law firm Varnum LLP filed a complaint Aug. 11 on behalf of farmworkers through the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.
“We feel like we’ve been treated like trash,” said the 47-year-old Magana, who’s been working at the Bear Lake operation for 16 years. “I don’t think that’s fair what they are trying to do. They try to blame us for all the virus that is around us. I’ve even heard people say, ‘Oh, migrants are the corona(virus) carriers.’ That hurts, you know?”
According to the lawsuit, the MDHHS emergency order is targeting two classes of workers for mandatory testing and subsequent enforcement — migrant and seasonal workers, and workers in the meat, poultry, egg processing, and greenhouse industries.
Requirements for the emergency order include testing workers within 48 hours of their arrival to camp and separate housing for new residents for 14 days. Mandated testing must be completed by Aug. 24.
However, Magana said he already “feels safe here.”
“I have been working in the fields since I was 8 years old in Mexico, and then when I was 19, here,” said Magana, who’s raised four daughters in northern Michigan. “Here, we have a better chance to make more money. I not only help my daughters and my wife, (but) I help my mom and another brother over there (in Mexico). Sometimes they have a hard time buying food because over there, it’s really hard.”
Magana said farmworker pay in Mexico simply is not enough to live on. The country’s current minimum wage is $6.50 per day, according to Forbes, which is almost $3 less than Michigan’s minimum hourly wage requirements.
“There’s more opportunity here,” Cain Magana said via his translator and brother, Leo Magana.
Cain Magana, 35, said the state is targeting migrant workers through additional testing. The brothers said if there’s additional testing and it infringes on their hourly pay, they might look for ag-related jobs outside Michigan.
“I understand I have to uphold the rules to wear the masks and everything, but they're focusing more on the migrant community,” said Cain Magana, who also works at West Wind Orchards. “It affects us because if we don’t get the tests, then we probably lose our jobs.”
“The governor's current mandate is untenable,” said David Smeltzer, owner of West Wind Orchards, a fourth-generation family farm in northern Michigan.
In the coming weeks, 16 migrant farmworkers will pick apples at his operation.
“We believe it’s discriminatory and racial because it doesn’t address any of the issues elsewhere in society,” says Smeltzer. “For example, we have to test people in our camp, yet are we testing students at dorms? This is strictly pointed at Latino people, Hispanic people.”
If a migrant farmworker refuses to be tested by Aug 24, Smeltzer said the employee cannot work. To date, he said no one at the orchard’s contracted COVID-19.
“We are so spread out here that we fall within the guidelines of the separation and 6-feet (rule),” Smeltzer added. “My apple harvest crew hasn’t arrived yet. We have this (Aug.) 24 date looming, and it’s creating chaos.”
That chaos is getting to Leo Magana, too.
“We love working the farm; it’s all we know,” he said. “I’m happy here, but now I feel uncomfortable because of all this going on.”
On Aug. 14 the court denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary restraining order of the emergency order but imposed a deadline of Aug. 18 for MDHHS to respond to the lawsuit.
According to Michigan Farm Bureau attorney Allison Eicher, Varnum is scheduled to file a response to the MDHHS legal filing soon, and the parties hope the judge will issue a ruling before the mandated Aug. 24 testing deadline.
Watch a video on this story here.