The Michigan Worker’s Disability Compensation Act requires most employers to carry insurance for work-place injuries. This work comp insurance is meant to cover 80% of the after-tax value of an injured worker’s lost wages while they recover from an injury. The insurance also covers medical bills and some other miscellaneous expenses/benefits.
Almost all employers in the state are required to either carry this insurance or be certified as self-insured (i.e., they need to show that they have the financial wear-with-all to pay these claims themselves if they don’t carry insurance). However, there is a carve-out written into the law for farmers relative to their employment of migrant workers. Section 115 of the Act defines which employers are subject to paying for/covering wage loss, and it states as follows:
“This Act shall apply to: . . . (d)All agricultural employers of 3 or more regular employees paid hourly wages or salaries, and not paid on a piecework basis, who are employed 35 or more hours per week by that same employer for 13 or more consecutive weeks during the preceding 52 weeks. Coverage shall apply only to such regularly employed employees.”
This language effectively exempts farm owners from having to purchase full coverage for their migrant workers, who are only hired during harvest time. For most crops, harvest time is shorter than the 13 consecutive weeks outlined by the Act. Employers still have to cover these migrant workers for medical expenses if they’re hurt on the job, but the injured workers won’t get lost wages.
In practice, this means that a worker could get hurt their first day on the job at a factory or restaurant, and they’d receive full benefits; however, a migrant worker who has been coming back to the same farm every year for a decade could get hurt on the job and they/their family will receive no financial support, even if they are catastrophically injured.
It could be argued that this distinction violates Equal Protection, given that the vast majority of migrant workers are Latinx. The constitutionality of this law was last brought before the Michigan Supreme Court in 1984 (see Eastway v. Eisenga, 420 Mich. 410). The Eastway court considered the legislature’s rationale in making its distinction under Section 115, and looked at the committee testimony from when the Act was first drafted—i.e., at a time when there were far more family farms. Back in those days, friends, neighbors, extended family, etc., helped bring in the harvest. Given the commercialization of our farming industry and the now-widespread practice of using migrant workers during harvest time (as opposed to family members), this question may be ripe for reconsideration.
The best fix, of course, would be a legislative amendment. Unfortunately, as with many issues affecting those at the bottom of our political food-chain, the legislative will power necessary to make this fix simply isn’t there.