A federal appeals court has denied industry groups’ request to block a state order requiring COVID-19 testing to protect farm and food processing workers.

The U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati this week rejected a request from groups backed by the Michigan Farm Bureau for an injunction against the order issued Aug. 3 by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The court’s three-judge panel unanimously denied the injunction.

Migrant farm workers hunker down in the strawberry patch to hand pick berries at a farm in Lake Leelanau. Seasonal migrant workers are a necessity for farmers across Michigan who spend most of the year tending to the ground and about five months picking the fruits of their labor. (Photo: John T. Greilick / Detroit News file)

“The virus’s effects on individual and community health is well documented; to the extent the order is motivated by the legitimate government purpose of protecting migrant workers, their families, their communities, and the food supply chain, enforcing it serves the public interest,” the appeals court’s order said. “And interceding in a state’s administrative processes is an extreme step the federal judiciary typically avoids, especially as the state attempts to manage a pandemic.”

The decision comes about a week after the groups filed to appeal a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling rejecting their request for an injunction against the state order.

READ MORE: Farm owners, migrant advocates clash over COVID-19 order

Industry groups argued the order discriminates against Latinos by mandating more testing than in other industries. They also claimed the order will cause them irreparable harm.

Michigan Farm Bureau officials called the court’s decision disappointing. 

“We are obviously disappointed in the Sixth Circuit opinion,” Rob Anderson, Michigan Farm Bureau’s Manager of Government Relations, said in a statement. “We will wait to hear what the next steps are for the plaintiff farm workers and employers. The ultimate decision to move forward is that of the plaintiffs and their counsel at Varnum LLP.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer praised the ruling.

“In a 3-0 decision, today a federal court of appeals upheld the state’s power to require certain agricultural employers and housing providers to implement testing protocols among Michigan workers who are especially at risk to COVID-19,” Tiffany Brown, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement. “The governor welcomes this decision upholding her strategy to save lives and protect the food supply.”

 Advocates for farm workers and immigrants also welcomed the court’s ruling.

“This case has caused confusion among farm workers in Michigan with respect to their right to get tested free of discrimination or retaliation,” Diana Marin, an attorney at the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, said in a statement. The center, which has offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Ypsilanti, is a legal resource center for Michigan’s immigrant communities. 

“Today, the court made it clear that the state of Michigan can act to protect farm worker health,” Marin said. “If the plaintiffs in the case truly care about the rights and health of Michigan’s agricultural workers, they should help implement the state’s public health order and not undermine it.”

The Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice and the United Farm Workers filed Aug. 20 a legal brief in support of the public health order.

Under the state health department’s order, employers of migrant or seasonal workers, meat, poultry and egg processing facilities and greenhouses with more than 20 employees on-site at a time must provide COVID-19 testing. They are required to perform one-time baseline testing of all workers, testing of all new workers prior to any in-person work and test of any worker with symptoms or who has been exposed to COVID-19.

In addition, migrant housing camp operators must provide one-time baseline testing of all residents ages 18 and over, test all new residents with 48 hours of arrival, with separate housing for newly arriving residents for 14 days and a second test 10-14 days after they arrive. They must also test any resident with symptoms or who has been exposed.

It also required all employers comply with the order by Aug. 24.

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Twitter: @CharlesERamirez

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