(TNS) - Seasonal workers who packed asparagus at a west Michigan farm initially chalked up their exhaustion, dizziness and headaches to the demands of working 13 hour-shifts seven days a week.
But then some workers lost their sense of taste and smell and had a hard time breathing. By mid-June, it was clear that Todd Greiner Farms in Hart was dealing with a major COVID-19 outbreak among its workforce.
At least 94 people tied to the farm tested positive, the largest farm outbreak in Oceana County, according to county health department emails obtained by the Documenting COVID-19 project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation at Columbia University and provided to the Free Press.
Health department spreadsheets tracked the diagnosis of 55 cases from Todd Greiner Farms from under two weeks in June, in which nearly all of the employees identified as Hispanic or Latino. According to emails, the virus spread to farmworkers' families, with 15% of infections being household or secondary cases by mid-June.
“It is crazy but I am sure underneath everyone’s story there is a connection to a migrant worker,” Doreen Byrne wrote on June 28. Byrne is the communicable disease coordinator for District Health Department 10, which covers 10 counties in northwest Michigan.
Among those at Todd Greiner Farms who fell ill was a supervisor who died, two workers said. The man's death certificate lists his cause of death as “COVID 19 Pneumonia Complications."
It’s not known how many of the state’s estimated 45,000 migrant and seasonal farmworkers, many of whom are Latino, have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic hit in March. There have been at least 46 outbreaks at agriculture, food processing and migrant camp settings as of Sept. 17, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
MDHHS mandated COVID-19 testing by agriculture employers and migrant labor camp operators in August, a move that some farmers pushed back on with a legal fight.
Emails obtained under Freedom of Information Act requests show that health department officials in several counties had concerns around outbreaks and testing at farms well before the state mandate. Among the findings:
Nearly half of Oceana County’s 441 COVID-19 cases by late July were connected to farm outbreaks. In Branch County, along the state’s southern border, several pepper and tomato growers that employed migrant workers resisted mass testing after cases spiked in June, before the emergency order mandated testing. A “large proportion” of the county’s cases at the time were associated with Latino workers. In Branch and Oceana counties, health departments fielded complaints from citizens concerned that some farms weren’t taking preventive measures to keep their employees safe. A worker at a farm in Coldwater said she was upset that some employees were offered testing in June but her department wasn't. Some health department officials across the state in early July suggested that they were overwhelmed and had little capacity to respond to businesses that are licensed by the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which includes food processing plants. One health officer wrote, "The migrant farm situation is a whole world of its own."
During a shift at Todd Greiner Farms in mid-June, a 25-year-old woman — who was among several workers who asked not to be identified in this article out of concern for losing their jobs or not finding work in the future — said she started coughing so hard that she couldn't catch her breath. She described a chaotic day of ambulances rushing away one worker who turned alarmingly pale in the break room and another who had a hard time breathing. The woman said she left work that day and tested positive.
"That day, 30 people, including me, we all left," she said.
Todd Greiner Farms did not return emails seeking comment. A woman who answered the phone declined to comment, saying: "Nobody here would be interested" in talking about coronavirus cases.
Michigan farmers and their representatives defend their practices, saying the health and safety of their workers is one of their top concerns. They say this year has been a struggle for them, with many uncertain about their future.
"Our farms and our agricultural businesses have gone through extreme measures to protect the health and safety of their workers," said Ernie Birchmeier, a manager at the Michigan Farm Bureau. "It is critically important that we do that because we rely on a workforce to get the crops harvested, to get them packaged, to get them delivered. So our farms have taken this situation very seriously and continue to do so."
Farmworkers serve a vital role in Michigan’s agriculture industry, which contributes $104.7 billion annually to the state’s economy, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Michigan, with more than 300 different commodities, is the second most agriculturally diverse state after California.
Some workers arrive as early as February to begin the planting season and stay as late as mid-November, moving from farm to farm. The fruit and vegetable season starts with asparagus in the spring and wraps up with apples in the fall.
Coronavirus outbreaks concern farmworker advocates and health experts. They say migrant laborers are at risk for exploitation and can be vulnerable to COVID-19, in part because they often work and live in crowded environments.
Historically, migrant workers have encountered a lack of labor protections, said Alexis Handal and Lisbeth Iglesias-Rios, researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health who interviewed farmworkers in 2019 for a study called the Michigan Farmworker Project. Workers might not speak up about their health and safety because they're afraid of losing their jobs.
“There’s some really important power dynamics at play here, and workers are not empowered to really have control of their working and living conditions,” said Handal, an associate professor of epidemiology.
And “the fear of deportation is huge” for those who are undocumented, said Iglesias-Rios, a postdoctoral research fellow. That can mean staying quiet about problems such as a lack of masks and other personal protective equipment.
“Having a silent workforce is dangerous during the pandemic,” Iglesias-Rios said.
Adrian Vazquez-Alatorre, executive director of El Concilio, an immigrant advocacy group in Kalamazoo, said that Latino immigrant workers have struggled to get protection during the pandemic, especially earlier this year.
"They weren't giving them masks before," Vazquez-Alatorre said of some greenhouses, farms and food processing centers. He said employers brushed aside workers' requests for masks and other protections.
Crowded production lines
Some workers who believe they contracted COVID-19 on the job told the Free Press that their employers showed little regard for their health and safety and didn’t pay them for their time off after they tested positive. Yet, other farmworkers said their employers tested them before it was mandated and compensated them for sick time.
The worker at Todd Greiner Farms who got sick with COVID-19 said she and her colleagues stood about 2 feet apart on the production line and would bump into each other as they grabbed bundles of asparagus off a belt.
“I still feel like the people that were working there was just too many,” said the woman, who lives in Hart. “I was like, ‘I don’t see why you don’t do a second shift ... and have more space between us.’”
Another worker, a 25-year-old Texas woman, said Todd Greiner Farms had protocol for hand-washing, wearing gloves and social distancing in break rooms.
"But working in the line, in the production line, we were all very close together. They didn’t follow the 6-feet distancing," the woman said.
Both women said Todd Greiner Farms provided reusable cloth masks that were collected at the end of each shift for washing and redistributed to different workers.
“How can you keep the virus away from people when you’re doing that? How sure are you that the virus is going to be out or the germs are going to be out from those face masks?” the Hart resident said.
She said workers were allowed to use their own masks, but she thinks the farm should have provided disposable masks.
She said frustrated workers walked out.
Her account of employees leaving is supported by emails among staff at District Health Department 10. Byrne, the communicable disease coordinator, wrote in a June 28 email to another official that "the farm is closed for the season. The employees all walked out last week."
Outbreaks keep health department busy
Agriculture outbreaks spiked quickly over a few days in the beginning of June, said Robin Walicki, clinical supervisor for District Health Department 10. In the department's 10-county coverage area, Oceana County saw the biggest jump, with additional cases at farms and food processing plants in Newaygo and Mason counties.
"It ramped up so quickly there in a couple days that I think it might’ve taken us a little bit by surprise," Walicki told the Free Press. "There was the dip after everybody stayed home. We had a couple days with zero cases. I think we were lulled into a little bit of a sense of security. ... It just very quickly became very hard to follow up on all the contacts."
The health department brought in more translators and reassigned about 20 people from different divisions to help with contact tracing. Nurses worked daily for close to six weeks, Walicki said.
Walicki didn't have exact numbers Monday but said cases have increased only sporadically since MDHHS mandated farmworker testing in August as apple orchards prepared for the season.
"I think because of the fact that we might have newer people in the area with the different harvest season, we’re starting to see a few different people get tested," she said. "Everybody else had been tested, isolated, quarantined."
In late August, after an outbreak in late June among four workers, Arbre Farms in the Oceana County village of Walkerville had its first “what if they already tested positive” scenario with a migrant worker, according to emails between the farm and health officials. The employee had tested positive less than two months earlier and was refused testing at multiple health clinics due to the fact that he already tested positive not long before.
Emails show some suspicion about how quickly farmworkers were returning to work and the issue of being retested.
“It is my understanding that if someone has tested positive for COVID 19 previously, that no one in the area will retest them,” wrote Arbre Farms HR Administrator Jennifer Juliano, as she asked whether she could employ workers who couldn’t get tested. Confusion surrounding protocol meant they were directed from the county health department to the state.
'Stressful time' for greenhouses
Michael Fusilier of Manchester, who runs a small family-owned vegetable farm and greenhouse in Washtenaw County, said they've been protecting their workers.
"We do make sure everybody's wearing masks," Fusilier told the Free Press. "I have one of my ladies who was working for me, she's in charge of making sure our crews are doing the right things and trying to abide by the rules of the executive orders. And so we were trying very hard."
Adding to the uncertainty, Fusilier Family Farms had to shut down because of a state executive order that prevented greenhouses from selling any products. The Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association filed a lawsuit challenging the order. The state lifted the restrictions in April.
"That was a very stressful time, not knowing what was going on," Fusilier said. "We did lose some sales right off the bat because we weren't able to open as early as we normally do."
Legal fight over testing
The state mandated that baseline testing had to be done by Aug. 24 and applied to agriculture employers with more than 20 workers on-site at a time and migrant housing providers. Going forward, they must test new workers, as well as those who have been exposed to COVID-19 or have symptoms.
Employers and housing operators foot the bill for testing, but they can get help covering some or all of the costs.
A number of immigrant advocates supported the state order, while some farms and farmworkers alleged it unfairly targeted farms and Latinos. Opponents filed a federal lawsuit challenging the order.
"We are very disappointed in the public health order that came out specifically targeting migrant and seasonal workers in the agricultural community," said Birchmeier, of the Michigan Farm Bureau, which backed the suit. "The workers themselves were very concerned about that."
The Farm Bureau said the order led to some Michigan farmworkers leaving fields and orchards.
But the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state, and the two farms and four workers who brought the legal action withdrew their suit this month.
Before the state mandated testing, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in June ordered COVID-19 protections at the state's 782 licensed migrant labor housing camps.
The state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development says it has inspected all licensed migrant housing camps, most of which are in west Michigan, for compliance with the executive order. Among other things, the requirements include:
developing and posting a COVID-19 response plan, providing masks, and setting up separate housing for those who test positive and people awaiting test results.
A spokesman for the department of agriculture said Sept. 11 that all licensed camps were in compliance with the order, and no civil or criminal penalties had been filed against any housing provider.
But Teresa Hendricks, executive director of Migrant Legal Aid in Grand Rapids, said she and her staff have documented a number of issues while doing outreach at housing sites. The nonprofit law firm visited camps in west Michigan three days a week and handed out 4,600 reusable masks this summer.
Last year, Migrant Legal Aid referred 67 complaints about housing conditions and other issues to the department of agriculture. They’ve made 102 referrals so far this year, Hendricks said.
She said the most common complaints are housing camps not posting their COVID-19 preparedness plans, a lack of disinfectant products and no clear isolation areas for people who test positive.
Most farmworker housing is set up for workers to share rooms, which Hendricks said ranges from four-person bedrooms in trailers to barracks-style housing of 50 or more beds in one room. Whitmer's order requires camps to separate beds by 6 feet when possible and encourage residents to sleep head-to-toe.
“I see the workers trying to make their own barriers between other workers, hanging sheets around their bed so that they don’t combine airspace,” Hendricks said. “We see people trying to reuse surgical face masks, wash and then hang them on a line.”
On a warm afternoon in late August, Hendricks and law clerk Molly Spaak packed a van with more than 100 bags of cloth masks, hand sanitizer, plastic gloves and information about how workers could reach them with complaints. They headed north of Grand Rapids to Kent County’s “Fruit Ridge,” where the apple harvest was just beginning.
At a camp south of Sparta, they met workers who'd recently arrived from Mexico on temporary agricultural visas, known as an H-2A, and planned to stay until late October. About a dozen men in a trailer-like building chatted in Spanish with Hendricks and Spaak. They said they were getting tested for COVID-19 the next day.
At another housing site tucked between rows of Honeycrisp and Gala apple trees, Spaak walked through the tidy camp to see whether anyone was home.
She approached the white, multi-person cabins, calling out, “Hello. Hola. ¿Alguien?” Anyone?
They found 32-year-old Brenda Martinez home with her two young children while her husband and the rest of the farmworkers were out. Her husband has been a seasonal employee with Chase Orchards for four years. He likes it there, she said. Most of the other workers come through the H-2A program.
Her husband got sick in July and tested positive for COVID-19, Martinez said. Chase Orchards checked on her family while he was ill and off work, and neither Martinez nor her kids caught the virus.
Martinez's mother worked on a blueberry farm in Ottawa County this summer. Workers who tested positive there left because they didn’t want to isolate, she said.
“They wanted to work, so they just left,” she said.
Hendricks said farmworker testing is well-intended, but the fact that people can’t work while they have the virus is a hardship for those who aren’t paid sick time. She mentioned a woman who went a month without income while she had COVID-19. Because she’s undocumented, she didn't feel she could demand to be paid for the time she lost, Hendricks said.
A 43-year-old farmworker in Newaygo County, who asked to not be identified, said he’s concerned about the virus because he has four kids. But he’s also afraid of losing his job if he tests positive. He said he doesn’t understand why testing isn’t required of workers in many other industries.
“It should have applied to everybody, not just farmworkers,” the man said through a translator. “We don’t know why it’s so focused on us.”
'Many of us at work got sick'
Other agriculture workers said they were glad to be tested. Raquel Ramirez Hernandez, 59, is employed year-round at Peterson Farms in the Oceana County village of Shelby, where she packages peaches, apples, cherries and blueberries.
She said the company tested its workforce in late spring as temporary workers were arriving.
“There was a very large influx of people, and we were all happy to get tested,” Ramirez Hernandez, of Hart, said through a translator.
She tested negative at first. Thirty-seven people associated with Peterson Farms tested positive as of mid-June, according to health department emails. Ramirez Hernandez contracted the virus in early July and was given paid sick time for two weeks off.
America Reyes, 52, a Texas resident living in Hart for the growing season, believes that she and other family members who contracted COVID-19 got it from two siblings who worked at Peterson Farms. Reyes said her siblings contracted with Peterson and weren’t paid for the hours they missed while sick.
A spokesman for Peterson Farms declined an interview request.
Other workers said they have faced similar problems.
Juana, 39, who asked that her last name not be used, has worked on farms in Michigan for 15 years and currently packs eggs.
She said she tested positive for the coronavirus in April and had to miss work for a month and a half, making it hard to pay her bills.
"COVID-19 has affected me in a lot of ways, mentally, financially, economically," Juana said through a translator during a news conference last month organized by immigrant advocates. "I was infected with COVID-19 because at work they did not provide us with security protections, did not give us masks. We had to buy masks with our own money. And many of us at work got sick due to the lack of protective equipment at our workplaces."
The Texas woman who worked at Todd Greiner Farms said before she got sick with COVID-19 in June, she and others on the production lines were pushed to work quickly as the end of asparagus season neared.
She said people were so tired that they forgot to take care of themselves.
"They forgot to notice the fatigue that this virus costs you. They thought they were just tired because of work. I think it was because we were already infected," she said.
Contact Angie Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23
Contact Niraj Warikoo: email@example.com or 313-223-4792. Twitter @nwarikoo
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: In one Michigan county, almost half the COVID-19 cases are tied to farm outbreaks
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