How Michigan farms pulled off COVID-19 testing for workers

Sep 3, 2020

Planting tart cherry trees at LaCross Farms in Leelanau County.
Credit Peter Payette

Maria San Miguel was nervous about getting a coronavirus test. 

“I was seeing on the television and the internet that there was something they were going to put up your nose really far,” she says in Spanish. 

 

Luckily, when it came time for her to be prodded with a cotton swab in August it wasn’t painful. Her eyes teared up and she felt like she had to sneeze. After 30 seconds, it was over. 

 

San Miguel got her test at Bardenhagen Berries, a farm in Leelanau county where she works. She didn’t have any coronavirus symptoms, hadn’t traveled recently, or been in contact with anyone who tested positive. But she still had to get a test.

 

That’s because in early August the state health department started requiring employers to provide testing for all farm workers living in migrant housing, and everyone working on farms where more than 20 people convene at once. The move came after hundreds of workers got sick at farms and food processing facilities across the state.

 

 


Michigan was the first state in the U.S. to require blanket testing for agriculture workers. The thinking here is that many farmworkers live and work in close quarters, which is ripe for the spread of disease. 

 

Since the order went into effect, hundreds of employers have asked the state to help set up testing for over 16,000 workers. As of August, over 5,000 farm workers took a test, and the same number are scheduled over the next few weeks, according to the state health department. 

 

Of those tested, 180 had positive results spread across more than a dozen locations.

 

“These outbreaks are known only because of testing,” according to Department Director Robert Gordon. “The order is getting results.”

 

 

For Steve Bardenhagen, manager at Bardenhagen Berries, setting up testing went smoothly.

 

After the new order came out, he requested testing from the state. Within a few days a local clinic set up shop at his farm. A whole crew came out -- a nurse giving out cotton swabs, some people entering data on computers, and others filling out intake forms. 

 

“It was quite something,” Bardenhagen says. They were done in a few hours. A couple days later, the results came back. All negative.

 

From left: Betsy, Candelaria and Maria San Miguel.
Credit Steve Bardenhagen

  But the process has left many frustrated by miscommunication, and prompted a lawsuit accusing the state of discrimination. 

 

 Scheduling testing wasn’t easy for some employers. For many, this order came during the peak of harvest season -- a lot of seasonal workers had already been there for months, and many farmers were at their busiest. 

 

And some of the mandate's directions were unclear, says Juliette McAvoy of King Orchards, who coordinated testing for nearly 90 employees. 

 

“There were a lot of questions of like, how much is this going to cost? Who is going to have to comply? What happens if they don't want to get tested?”

 

“I supported the meaning behind it and everything, but there wasn’t an infrastructure in place for it to be carried out,” she says. 

 

One issue was covering the testing fees of workers without health insurance. The order directed employers to call the health department to apply for emergency Medicaid for uninsured workers. But when McAvoy tried to get in touch with her health department, she couldn’t get through. 

 

She arranged testing with Bear River Health, an independent health clinic, and paid for it with a separate state grant. Once she set up testing, it went smoothly. 

 

But many other growers, like Nels Veliquettewho has workers in Antrim and Grand Traverse counties, are still waiting to hear when they can schedule testing for a few thousand workers in total. 

 

And Veliquette has more employees coming in for apple season in the fall. Between figuring out separate housing where workers can quarantine and scheduling tests, “there’s just a lot that’s unknown,” he says. 

 

Some of the loudest concerns about the state's testing requirements have come from people who say they’re discriminatory against the Latino community, including a group of workers and farm managers that filed a lawsuit against the state. 

 

Antonio Alvarado, a Michigan farmworker of 30 years, says the requirement didn’t sit right with him. When he first heard about it, some really personal questions came up. 

 

“Why me? Why the Latinos? Why the Mexicans? Why people who work in agriculture?”

 

Despite his misgivings, Alvarado got tested, along with the other employees at his farm. “We're in a country that is not our own and we have to follow the rules, whether we like it or not," he says. 

 

And many workers are supportive of the requirements, including San Miguel, from Bardenhagen Berries. 

 

“I think everybody should be tested, because that’s how we take care of each other,” she says. 

 

“If we all had to do it, it would mean better health for everybody.”