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Feds provide $50M for farm worker quarantine costs

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Farmers are scrambling for information following an announcement this week that Ottawa will provide $50 million to cover quarantine costs for Canada’s offshore labour program this spring.

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This works out to $1,500 per worker for the two weeks they have to spend in isolation to ensure they do not carry the COVID-19 coronavirus or spread it to those around them.

Cost was a factor last week in the failure of a Haldimand-Norfolk proposal that would have seen the municipalities organize and administer a program that would have put these workers up in hotels, motels and other lodgings. Cost to the farmer was $1,800 per employee.

The April 13 announcement by federal Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau didn’t come as a total surprise to Norfolk Mayor Kristal Chopp, chair of the Haldimand-Norfolk Board of Health.

“We had always anticipated the potential for government assistance,” Chopp said in an email. “That is one of the factors why we were going to defer payment from the farmers. However, we needed to move quickly and we were not going to wait for funding.

“The funding piece is important for the farmers. But now the farmers — who have filed individual plans covering a large chunk of (their) workforce – to re-establish the program is more difficult but something we may consider if there is support from the agricultural sector.”

The response to the board of health proposal was lukewarm. However, now that Ottawa has eased the financial burden, farm representative Brett Schuyler of Simcoe is willing to take another look.

Schuyler said there is little enthusiasm for a quarantine program that confines workers to a hotel room for two weeks, especially when boards of health elsewhere allow farmers to quarantine workers at their place of employment.

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“Two weeks in isolation?” Schuyler said April 14. “It’s a big ask. You want the guys to be comfortable.”

As an alternative, Schuyler Farms will quarantine some of its workers offsite at a local campground with permanent, upscale lodgings.

“There’s ways of making it happen,” Schuyler said. “We have to get creative in these times.”

Paul Procyk of Wilsonville is another large employer of offshore help. He estimates his operation produces 75 million pounds of vegetables a year.

Procyk said this week that Haldimand-Norfolk’s plan of limiting bunkhouses to three workers during the quarantine period regardless of square footage – a stipulation authored by Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health – is a large obstacle to situating the help he needs in time for May planting.

Procyk has told the Haldimand-Norfolk Health Unit he is prepared to partition his bunkhouses into duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes to bump up the numbers, but is getting no encouragement from local health inspectors.

“There’s no negotiation,” he said. “There’s no thinking outside the box. It’s three guys to a bunkhouse, and that’s it.”

Given similar labour problems in California and Florida where much of Canada’s winter produce is grown, Procyk and Schuyler warn it could be slim pickings in grocery stores this winter. Both want a uniform set of quarantine rules for all farmers, at least across Ontario.

“What they’re doing is putting up a border around Norfolk County,” Procyk said. “We’re going to have to work together. This is about Team Canada – not Team Norfolk.”

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For his part, Nesathurai says the situation can’t be helped.

In a recent conference call, Nesathurai said large-scale farming operations are ripe for cluster outbreaks that can infiltrate families and eventually infect grandparents and the wider community.

With COVID-19, the frail elderly are especially vulnerable to the respiratory illness, with consequences up to and including death.

The goal, Nesathurai said, is to slow the rate of infection in the general population – “flatten the curve” so to speak – to ease demands on the health-care system and front-line workers such as doctors and nurses, many of whom have fallen ill with the virus themselves in recent weeks as they attempt to treat the sick.

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