Employee housing rules modified temporarily amidst COVID-19
New rules intend to protect Michigan’s ag production and food supply from disruptions due to labor shortages caused by employees contracting COVID-19.
The spread of COVID-19, the infectious disease caused by novel coronavirus, around Michigan continues to create challenges for state residents. Farmers and farmworkers are no exception to these challenges. Although agricultural workers are considered essential in Michigan, travel restrictions on migrants have made these jobs especially hard to fill. This raises concerns that the food supply chain could become seriously disrupted by a labor shortage brought on by farm employee illness.
Thousands of migrant workers arrive in Michigan each spring to work on farms, usually living at housing camps in very close proximity to each other where COVID-19 can spread particularly easily in this situation. New rules have been created by Gov. Whitmer’s Executive Order No. 2020-111 for “Protecting the Food Supply and Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers from the effects of COVID-19.”
Handling confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases
If one of your employees is diagnosed with COVID-19, you should notify both the local public health department and any co-workers, contractors, or suppliers who may have come into contact with the infected person within 24 hours. The employer will have to make arrangements for any COVID-19-suspected or confirmed residents to be evaluated by a medical provider through the local health department or federally qualified health center. The employee may not come back to work until they are no longer infectious according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines. Employees who stay home or who leave work when they are at particular risk of infecting others with COVID-19 should not be discharged, disciplined, or otherwise retaliated against.
With respect to housing, beds should be at least six feet apart in all directions wherever possible, and also camp residents should sleep head-to-toe. If a worker suspects they have COVID-19, they should be provided with isolation housing even if they have not received a positive test result yet. There should be good ventilation in these isolation rooms (e.g., by opening screened windows to the outside to let fresh air circulate). If one or more of your employees are confirmed to have COVID-19, you should provide them with housing, dining, and bathroom facilities separate from any non-confirmed employees. Anyone who delivers food and water to isolated residents should be equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
Communicating with employees
Employees should receive COVID-19 training. This should include workplace infection-control practices, the proper use of personal protective equipment, steps the employee must take to notify the business or operation of any symptoms or a suspected or confirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, and how to report unsafe working conditions. Paola Bacigalupo Sanguesa, Michigan State University Extension dairy educator, created a series of videos that may be useful as you plan on covering some of these topics. The phone number for the Michigan COVID-19 Hotline should be posted conspicuously, including a statement that if workers would like to make a confidential complaint about unsafe working or employer-provided living conditions, they may call the hotline number. The phone number of the local health department should also be provided to them. Workers should have available the name, housing address, phone number, and email address of the person responsible for their housing. The employer should try to collect emergency contact numbers for each worker.
Plans and protocols
A daily entry self-screening protocol must be conducted for all employees or contractors entering the workplace. At a minimum, this consists of a questionnaire covering symptoms and suspected or confirmed exposure to people with possible COVID-19. Michigan State University is in the process of developing online screening tools, so you should keep an eye out for that. A COVID-19 preparedness and response plan must also be developed and posted, and at least one employee should be designated to implement, monitor, and report on it. This employee must remain on-site at all times when other employees are present. In addition, the farm must have a deep cleaning and disinfection protocol in the event of a positive COVID-19 case in the workplace. If this happens, you must also be ready to adopt any additional measures suggested by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Adapting the workspace
Business-related travel should be limited to essential cases only, and remote work should be promoted when possible. Everyone on the worksite should try to remain at least six feet from one another to the maximum extent possible and wear face coverings provided by the employer, although they can use their own if they prefer. Tools, machinery, and vehicles should be cleaned and disinfected often. Cleaning supplies, extra time, and specific encouragement should be given to employees to wash hands or to use hand sanitizer often.
This order by Gov. Whitmer is effective until June 29. It is expected that these preventive measures will prevent the spread of COVID-19 among farm communities and keep the state’s food and ag sector running safely, smoothly, and consistently. If you have questions about them, contact Florencia Colella or your local Extension office.
Michigan State University Extension has many other resources available, including bookkeeping and financial analysis tools to help you with the important decisions you have to make as a farm manager. Many of these resources can be found at the MSU Extension Farm Management website: https://www.canr.msu.edu/farm_management/. Contact your Farm Business Management Extension Educator if you need help finding the right resources for your particular situation.