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Ag advisory board's position on migrant worker housing increases risk: CAO

The Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit and a board that advises Norfolk County on agricultural issues have differing opinions on how to handle the housing of migrant workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

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In a report to the Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health on July 7, Norfolk County CAO Jason Burgess said the Agriculture Advisory Board’s position on measures for workers’ self-isolation period when they arrive in Canada and post-isolation period for the remainder of their stay “increases our current amount of risk” to the worker, farmer, broader community and the board of health.


“Though there are certain items that are supported by the health unit, overall the Agriculture Advisory Board’s position would be one of higher risk approaches in Ontario and would be more aligned with Windsor Essex’s original approach, though it might have higher risk elements,” said Burgess. “The health unit does not believe increasing the risk is appropriate.”

There is currently a public health order restricting the number of migrant workers per bunkhouse to three during their mandatory, 14-day quarantine period. After the order was challenged by a farmer, Ontario’s Health Services Appeal and Review Board last month struck down the three-man cap as “arbitrary” and “unreasonable.” The order has been reinstated while the medical officer of health appeals the review board’s decision.

The board of health directed Burgess to reach out to the advisory board “to confirm our understanding of what the agricultural sector would like to see as far as measures to deal with COVID-19.”

The Agriculture Advisory Board’s position is:

  • During the initial 14-day travel isolation period, workers would be in bunkhouses with two metres of physical distancing, with up to 70 per cent of the normal occupancy capacity. Farmers propose having a health unit worker co-ordinate health checks and report to the farmer. Burgess said it’s unclear how new arrivals to the farm would be handled during a group’s 14-day, self-isolation period.
  • For the remainder of their stay, workers would attempt to maintain a two-metre separation where possible, but be allowed to use the full occupancy limit of the bunkhouses. This would include the use of bunkbeds with some type of separation or barrier.
  • Group cohorts would be created so that workers are living and working with the same people.
  • Positive asymptomatic people would continue to work.
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Although Burgess said the county understands the strain farmers are under, when considering each stakeholder — the farming sector, worker, the community, and public health, the solution proposed by the Agriculture Advisory Board doesn’t work for everyone.

Given that there are still a significant number of migrant workers coming to Norfolk for farming season and the potential for a “second wave” of the coronavirus, Burgess offered potential short- and long-term solutions to reduce the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19.

In the short-term, Burgess said migrant workers should be housed in hotels for their initial 14-day self-isolation period, with funding coming from the federal and provincial governments, the health unit and the farmer. This would be an opportunity to “burn out” the virus. Assuming the cost is $1,800 per worker plus their wages, he said farmers’ contribution would be about $300 per worker, said Burgess.

“The hotel solution is the best way forward if it’s funded by all levels of government. It’s a model that has worked in other provinces.”

Burgess said migrant workers may be more likely to disclose coronavirus symptoms to public health officials at hotels than to farmers for fear of losing their jobs.

In the longer term, said Burgess, “there needs to be a transition to more effective accommodations for migrant workers.”

“This will be years in the making and until new accommodations can be brought on line we need to move to manage risks more aggressively.”

When asked by Coun. Mike Columbus, a health board member, Burgess said the county hadn’t yet heard anything official from the federal and provincial governments regarding hotel funding.

Coun. Chris VanPaassen thanked members of the Agricultural Advisory Board for “not just complaining but putting together realistic solutions.”

Burgess said the advisory board is proposing a number of positive steps, including more active health screening of workers, moving toward increased separation and physical barriers, and creating group cohorts.

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