Michigan has officially entered summer, a season that brings tens of thousands of migrant and seasonal farmworkers to the state for temporary employment picking produce. COVID-19 has complicated this journey, housing, and benefits for migrant workers, and attorney Ben O'Hearn of Migrant Legal Aid breaks down the unique challenges they face in this informative Q&A.
Tell me about your work through Migrant Legal Aid. Who do you serve?
Workers who pick apples, strawberries, blueberries, asparagus, cherries, etc. (the list goes on). We're a non-profit legal aid organization dedicated to protecting the legal rights of low wage migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their families.
How many migrant workers travel to and live in West Michigan in the spring and summer?
The last study conducted of migrant workers was in 2013, and it found that there were approximately 49,135 migrant and seasonal farmworkers in Michigan. If we include family members, that number rises to 94,167. However, since 2013 there has been a substantial increase in the number of H-2A workers in Michigan, and that will have an impact on those numbers when a new study is conducted.
How has the migrant worker population been affected by COVID-19? Are migrant workers still able to secure temporary housing and other resources?
It's still early in the season, but there's a lot of reasons to be worried. We've been monitoring outbreaks at greenhouses and egg farms, and it appears that not all employers are requiring their employees to actually use PPE, nor are all employers enforcing social distancing guidelines. Migrant workers tend to be more geographically isolated — which can prevent or delay the virus from infecting them — but once it's present at a camp or worksite it can spread very quickly. Migrant housing tends to be very densely populated, so there's a lot of concern that it could spread quickly.
On the other hand, the Governor issued Executive Order 2020-111
, which requires employers to provide isolation housing for people who are suspected to have COVID-19, so there are some measures in place that can help. Additionally, migrant workers are considered a priority for testing.
Has racial and social stigma affected the hiring of migrant workers during COVID-19?
I haven't seen anything definitive regarding the hiring of migrant farmworkers. The bigger racial/social issue would be the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 is having on Latino communities in general (According to MDCR, 99.6% of farmworkers are Hispanic or Latino).
Are migrant workers eligible to receive any COVID-19 specific support funds at this time?
Yes, but a lot of it depends on status and work history. Unemployment benefits aren't available for undocumented workers. Additionally, Michigan law allows some employers to be designated as seasonal employers, which can affect whether someone is available for unemployment benefits.
However, undocumented workers now can qualify for Emergency Services Only Medicaid, which now covers COVID-19 testing and treatment.
Tell me more about your #fiveforfarmworkers Campaign in which you distribute COVID-19 Safety Kits to migrant farmworkers.
We have prepared COVID-19 Farmworker Safety kits that contain surgical and custom face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and safety literature particular to Farmworkers (with Covid and pesticide related health resources, contact numbers for legal help, daycare, and other social services). One $5 donation provides one Farmworker with the complete safety kit. We’ve distributed a few hundred already. Although Growers are supposed to provide PPE, we know the few masks they hand out have not lasted long. Masks wear out quickly under their working conditions and are often not replenished. Our Safety kits are made possible through the #FiveForFarmworkers donations and are delivered to them.
Some supplies have been donated, and a grant helps delivery expenses through a special Covid Emergency Response fund from Heart of West Michigan United Way. Our outreach workers also observe compliance with COVID related safety recommendations of the Exec order and CDC guidelines at migrant housing sites (aka “camps”).
How can our readers learn more about and support the migrant worker population?
To learn more about the Migrant Farmworker Population in Michigan, a good place to start might be the Michigan Department of Civil Rights Report of the Condition of Migrant and Seasonal Farmworkers.
One way someone could support the migrant worker population could be to donate to one of the following organizations:
- Migrant Legal Aid (us) - represents clients in employment or housing matters and ensures equal access to the civil justice system. We're currently running a #fiveforfarmworkers Campaign, where we distribute COVID-19 Safety Kits to migrant farmworkers
- Telamon Migrant Head Start programs - helping young Migrant Children and their families
- MSU College Assistance Migrant Program - giving the children of Migrant workers the chance to succeed in college
- or, if anyone wants to help and has a particular passion and wants to give, they can reach out to me and I'll try and find an organization where that passion and farmworkers meet. My email address is [email protected], and our office number is (616) 454-5055.
Ben O'Hearn is an attorney with Migrant Legal Aid. Working closely with the Executive Director, Ben is the attorney primarily responsible for advancing their clients' legal rights through advocacy, negotiation, and litigation. He has been lead counsel on many of the cases Migrant Legal Aid has filed and has been appointed class counsel in two of our cases. In addition to the legal work that Ben does at Migrant Legal Aid, he is the Chair of the Labor Trafficking Impact Group of the Kent County Human Trafficking Task Force. Finally, like many of his clients Ben is an immigrant himself, moving to the United States from Australia when he was 7. He hopes that his work helps other immigrants feel as welcome in America as he did.