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Agri-food employers & COVID-19

Agri-food employers & COVID-19

Experts share legislation, tips and resources to help you manage your farm or business as we continue to battle this pandemic

By Jackie Clark
Staff Writer

Feed Your Future

Employers in the agri-food sector are continuing to do their best to navigate a busy growing season with additional challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Feed Your Future initiative is a partnership between the Ontario Federation of Agriculture, and to help both employers and jobseekers.

“There are unique workforce challenges and opportunities in the agri-food sector,” said Kathryn Doan, director of and, in a June 29 webinar. “Employers are seeking qualified candidates for planting, harvesting, processing, marketing, researching, and selling Ontario’s healthy high-quality food and beverage products.”

Jennifer Wright and Stefan Larrass also presented in the webinar about regulations and best practices for agri-food employers during COVID-19. Wright is the senior HR adviser and stakeholder engagement specialist at the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), and Larrass is a policy adviser at the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association.

General workplace policies

Any farm or other agri-food business should have human resources policies that comply with federal and/or provincial employment laws.

“Having those HR policies and practices on your farm is a way to ensure that you’re providing an environment that meets this legislation,” Wright said. It is up to the employer to find out whether they are under federal or provincial jurisdiction, however, most farm businesses are legislated provincially.

Both the Canadian and Ontario governments have a Human Rights Code.

“This legislation does apply to everything from recruitment ads … all the way through the hiring process, termination, promotion, really all aspects of employment,” Wright explained. Ensuring your workplace is free from discrimination is covered under these federal regulations: the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Employment Equity Act, and the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act.

Those acts cover equality of opportunities and freedom from discrimination, as well as reasonable accommodations, Wright said.

Provincially “the Ontario Ministry of Labour is one of the main regulators for employment in the province,” she said. The Employment Standards Act outlines basic information, however, there are some nuances and differences in primary agricultural production.

For example, under provincial regulation “in the case of agricultural workers, as an agricultural employer you’re not obliged to pay overtime,” Larrass explained.

Provincial legislation employers should be aware of include the Occupational Health and Safety Act, Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, Building Code Act, Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, Pay Equity Act, Human Rights Code and, for unionized workplaces, the Labour Relations Act.

Even if it’s only family working on the farm “you are an employer, so that means that the guidelines need to be met,” Wright said.

As soon as your farm or business hires someone other than the owner, spouse, or an executive officer “you have to register with Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) within 10 days,” Larrass added.  

COVID-19 considerations

During the pandemic, the Ontario government has put in place new temporary regulations under the Employment Standards Act, Wright explained. Those changes instated infectious disease emergency leave that is job protected.

The act also amended rules surrounding reduced or eliminated hours due to COVID-19. “Most primary production are looking for employees,” Wright said. However, if you are in a situation involving temporary layoffs or leave, consult that regulation.

Employers have a responsibility to take every reasonable precaution to protect their employees’ health and safety.

This includes physically distancing whenever possible, and good use of personal protective equipment (PPE) when distancing is not possible, Wright said. She’s also observed creative and effective use of Plexiglas barriers on farm equipment. 

“You want to make sure that you’re increasing the availability of hand-washing stations,” she added. Farmers should also “reduce the amount of visitors to your farm as much as possible,” and have clear signage for deliveries or other necessary visitors. Employers should pay close attention to cleaning equipment and high-touch areas.

Farmers may also want to have their employees work in specified teams “so that the level of interaction between all of your workers is very limited,” Wright said.

Workers, especially those who are cohabiting should be encouraged to stick together as a crew and avoid contact with others, Larrass said.

“If you live together then you have a responsibility to the rest of your crew that you’re living with to keep them safe as well,” he explained. Employers can facilitate this by reducing intermingling of employees who do not live together. Keep “anyone who’s not part of your cohabited crew separate.”

Employers can screen employees with questions and temperature checks, Larrass added. 

These measures must be enforced by engaging in positive dialogue and open communication with your team, Wright and Larrass said.

“It’s really going to help if you have good communication with your staff; you’re engaging them and they feel like they can bring any concerns forward,” Wright said. Employees will feel empowered to bring forward questions, ideas or concerns.

“Being able to have those conversations and create that comfortable workplace is going to help you avoid a situation where a worker may feel like they’re not safe and refuse to come to work. You want to be able to help address those concerns before it becomes a work refusal,” she added.

Workers in Ontario have the right to refuse unsafe work, however, the claims need to be backed up by actual presence of the virus, Larrass said.

“If you have documented disease in your farm, then your worker is formally entitled to say, ‘I’m not coming in until you’ve shown me that I will not get sick from those disease sources,’” he explained. “Right now, when it comes to Ontario and agriculture … it’s still a hypothetical concept because the Ministry of Labour has not dealt with a refusal-to-work claim in an agricultural workplace.”

Proactive measures and positive discussions with employees can help avoid that issue. However, producers should also have a “written plan or protocol for dealing with an outbreak,” Wright said.

“At minimum, you want to make sure you have that capacity and protocol for isolating symptomatic or confirmed sick individuals,” she added. 

If an employee tests positive for COVID-19, the employer should take immediate action. 

“If you find out a worker has been exposed to COVID-19 at work or a related claim has been filed through WSIB, make sure to notify the Ministry of Labour,” as well as your workplace health and safety committee, if you have one, and local public health unit, said Wright.

Again, positive communication with employees is critical. 

“You don’t want someone feeling like they have to come to work,” if they have symptoms, Wright said. Emphasize the importance of taking care of themselves and keeping their coworkers safe.

Explicitly explaining job- and pay-protection to employees may help with those conversations.

“I would highlight the fact that if you’re sick and you got tested, your income will be protected through WSIB. … If you’re sick and you take a leave, your job is protected,” Larrass said. Employers can reassure workers on those facts and the legislation in place to protect them.

WSIB “claim support is increasingly being made available in multiple languages,” and there are non-governmental organizations that can help employees through that process, he added.

Additional resources for employers

Ontario Workplace PPE Supplier Directory

Government of Ontario - Agriculture health and safety during COVID-19

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services – Guidance on Health and Safety for Agricultural Workers During COVID-19

Ministry of Labour – Agricultural employees

CAHRC AgriHR Toolkit – Information and Tips on COVID-19

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety – Coronavirus (COVID-19) Tips Agriculture

Government of Canada – COVID-19: A Guide for Temporary Foreign Workers in Canada


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