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Coronavirus poses challenges for Michigan's migrant workers and their employers

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Matt Nilson knows the mechanic he hires in the summer from South Africa probably won’t join the farm in Van Buren and Berrien counties in southwest Michigan. But he still holds out hope that the more than 40 Mexican laborers who harvest and process the bell peppers will make it this June even with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matt Nilson, Director of Business Operations for Golden Plain Farms, surveys a field being plowed for bell pepper planting on April 8, 2020 in Watervliet, Mich. Farmers across the state say they are concerned about not getting migrant labor from Mexico they need this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“There’s two challenges we face,” said Nilson, director of business operations for Golden Plain Farms Inc. “After we’ve planted our crop, it could be that three-quarters of our workers doesn’t show to pick. Or someone gets here, and they get sick. Then they can’t work.”

The U.S. State Department continues to process visas for foreign workers in Michigan’s agriculture and travel industries that rely on migrant labor to operate. But farmers and business owners fear border protocols, airline cancellations and the respiratory illness itself could leave them without the workers they need — jeopardizing Michigan’s agricultural diversity, northern Michigan vacation hotspots and the livelihoods of many workers.

“We’re just here to work and take care of our family,” said Chantelle Kerr, a 35-year-old Jamaican worker at the Hamilton Inn Select Beachfront in Mackinaw City who has an 11-year-old son back home. “It is a very fundamental program. It helps pay my bills at home."

Meanwhile, some residents worry about travelers, including southern Michigan residents, coming Up North and spreading the virus, said Jeannine Taylor, public information officer for the District Health Department No. 10 overseeing 10 counties in the northwest part of the state. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, however, has banned travel between Michigan residences through the end of the month.

“The Northern Michigan Public Health Alliance is asking travelers coming to northern Michigan to please self-quarantine when you arrive and before you go out to get groceries,” Taylor said. “Our health care systems are much smaller and resources are not as plentiful.”

Michigan farmers are concerned about not getting migrant labor from Mexico they need this year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

'Major uncertainty'

Some migrant agriculture workers even in the United States are concerned about traveling across the country to Michigan, said Jim Johnson, environmental division director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. They might instead stay where they are in southern states for the season.

Michigan also employs thousands of foreign H-2A and H-2B temporary workers every year to do jobs their employers say they cannot find domestic workers to do, such as housekeeping and landscaping at Mackinac Island hotels and harvesting and processing crops. 

Because of the outbreak, U.S. embassies and consulates no longer are conducting in-person interviews often required for workers to participate in the program. The State Department, however, is allowing consular officers to waive interviews for first-time and returning applicants who have no apparent ineligibility. Applicants whose previous visas expired in the last four years also may receive a waiver.

Many agriculture workers travel from Mexico or other Central American countries to Michigan, while many non-agriculture workers come from Jamaica. Such travelers who express or look like they have symptoms of COVID-19 may be provided with a mask and referred for health screening, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

The workers from Mexico often migrate together in buses — the first ones arrive at this time of year for the asparagus harvest. Some farmers fear the buses risk their ability to make it to Michigan safely and on time, Nilson said, and are paying for air travel while tickets are less expensive.

“The virus casts a major uncertainty if your particular workers are going to cross the border,” said Mike DeRuiter, a farmer in Oceana County who hires H-2A workers in the fall for the apple harvest. “When the crops start growing, you need them on day one. Delays don’t work.”

Farmers have to submit applications to hire H-2A workers at least 75 days before they need them. Domestic workers, however, must get first dibs on the jobs, and farmers say they hope college students sent home or laid-off workers might take advantage of the opportunity. Wages for foreign workers start at $14.40 per hour, according to federal requirements.

The State Department also is considering loosening restrictions on transferring H-2A visa holders to other farm contracts, MDARD’s Johnson said.

“It provides a lot of flexibility both for the workers themselves as well as the owner-operators to move resources from one place to another and one crop from the next crop to the next crop,” he said.

Golden Plan Farms' Field Supervisor Benito Resendez plows a field in preparation for bell pepper planting on April 8, 2020 in Watervliet.

'Kicked them out'

Meanwhile, employers in Michigan’s travel industry like Joe Lieghio, whose family and investors own 10 restaurants and 28 hotels in Mackinaw City, worry flight cancellations out of Jamaica will limit his workers' ability to travel to the United States when his businesses eventually open.

He hopes that will be in late May now that school groups, the “bread and butter” in the coming weeks for business, have canceled. Only one of his restaurants right now is operating with 4.5% of its typical business from takeout and delivery, while overnight demand is limited to truck drivers and pipeline workers.

“We are crossing our fingers and hoping everything is going to let loose hopefully when the restrictions are lifted,” Leighio said. “We’ve borrowed money already. We’ve been trying to get the labor we need for afterwards. Flights are getting scarce.”

Leighio also employs 120 college students who come on J-1 visas from such eastern European countries as Russia, Turkey and Hungary, though the U.S. has placed travel restrictions on people coming from some of those places. Still, Leighio hopes they will be able to arrive in June. Otherwise, the businesses might have to run partially closed or be open fewer hours.

He already is providing housing without rent to 48 of the 200 H-2B workers he hires for the season. They weren’t supposed to arrive until mid-April, but as resorts in California, Colorado and other states closed early from the outbreak, employees reached out for help. The former motels where they stay while in Mackinaw City were opened, despite not being winter-proofed, causing leaks and the need for other repairs.

“They kicked them out on the street,” Leighio said. “We’re not going to abandon them.”

Kerr at the Hamilton Inn was one of them. The resort at which she worked in California had said it would keep its employees to do extra cleaning, but on March 21, she and her colleagues were told to leave. Kerr was the only one of 13 colleagues in California that could go to her next job early and did not have to return to Jamaica.

“You don’t want to go home,” said Kerr, who is in her fifth season with the Leighios. “They don’t know if they’ll be able to come back.”

Other businesses, including Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel, are providing temporary accommodations for their seasonal employees in addition to requesting they postpone their arrival if possible. The hotel delayed its opening to May 22. The island itself is closed to non-essential visitors through the end of the month.

Empty boxes at Golden Plain Farms stand ready to be packed with bell peppers on April 8, 2020 in Watervliet.

'Eliminate the risk'

After navigating connector flight cancellations and flying across the country on nearly empty planes, Kerr and her colleagues in Mackinaw City were quarantined for up to 16 days. No one has showed symptoms, Leighio said.

He is directing employees to follow state and federal guidelines to keep workers and customers safe, including taking employees’ temperatures every day and keeping a log, frequent hand washing and maintaining social distancing.

Michigan farmers, too, said they are implementing similar measures. The Michigan Farm Bureau has put out recommendations, and Michigan’s Interagency Migrant Services Committee is developing and providing educational materials to farmers and their workers on best safety practices and resources available, especially for health care, said Dale Freeman, director of the Officer of Migrant Affairs for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Farmworkers often are reluctant to request medical assistance for fear they will lose out on wages or develop a reputation as a lazy worker, said Teresa Hendricks, executive director of the nonprofit Michigan Migrant Legal Aid. Its mobile office travels throughout Michigan’s western “Fruit Belt” to provide legal and informational resources to these workers. It also plans to hand out face masks.

“They work in pairs close together, row by row, side by side; social distancing is going to be harder for them,” Hendricks said. “They’re already by virtue of their work exposed long-term to pesticides. Some of them may have lung inflation that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19.”

They often also live together in migrant worker camps licensed by the state. The roughly 2,400 living units across 900 licensed facilities are inspected twice annually: before the laborers arrive and while they are living in them, MDARD’s Johnson said. The department is exploring ways to conduct the inspections over live video later this year to avoid direct contact while the housing is occupied.

The Interagency Migrant Services Committee also is seeking clarification on its flexibility when it comes to space requirements for the occupants. The law mandates 100 square feet of space for each resident, shy of the 113 square feet for a 6-foot radius, the recommended social distance. Many also sleep in bunk beds.

“A workforce that cannot work is not helpful to each other,” Johnson said. “So how do we address this in a way that assures we can somewhat, if not completely, eliminate the risk around COVID-19?”