The Premier announced a plan to continue reopening the province while managing COVID-19 outbreaks among farm workers in Windsor-Essex
By Jackie Clark
Premier Doug Ford is taking a novel approach to the handling of COVID-19 outbreaks on farms in Windsor-Essex while still allowing for reopening in much of the region.
The cabinet will allow Windsor-Essex, except for Kingsville and Leamington, to move into phase 2 of re-opening, Ford announced in a June 24 press conference. This decision took effect at 12:01 a.m. on June 25.
“The outbreaks at our farms are a new challenge and it requires a targeted response. Today, we’re launching a three-point plan,” he explained.
First, government officials and healthcare workers will improve agricultural workplaces’ access to testing.
Public health officials are “working with local hospitals to send mobile testing units to farms. We’re bringing the testing right to their doorsteps. Anyone who needs a test can get a test,” Ford said.
Second, Ford and Ontario Minister of Labour Monte McNaughton emphasized that migrant or temporary workers have the same access to employment protection and benefits as other workers in the province.
“No one will lose their job if you have COVID-19. No one will be sent home if you have COVID-19. If you test positive for COVID-19 and you need to self-isolate for 14 days, you will be eligible for WSIB benefits,” Ford said.
“In some cases, if you worked here last year and have a social insurance number, workers may be eligible for the federal CERB benefits.”
“In Ontario, migrant workers are entitled to the same benefits and protections as any other worker in this province,” he said. “A worker’s passport does not determine how they are treated in our system.”
Additionally, the “Ministry of Labour, Training and Skills Development inspectors are beginning a new round of inspections today. They are teaming up with federal inspectors and local public health officials to conduct the first joint inspections on farms in the Windsor-Essex region,” he added.
Through this collaboration, inspectors have the authority to examine both the workplaces and the living quarters of migrant workers. Through these inspections, officials will ensure employers are taking every reasonable precaution to protect the health and safety of workers.
Third, Dr. David Williams, chief medical officer of health in Ontario, helped to develop a new protocol to allow farm labourers who are COVID-19-positive but asymptomatic to continue working. The government made this decision because of the seasonal pressure of farm work, and the fact that most of it occurs outdoors where physically distancing is possible.
Multiple positive, asymptomatic workers can stay together in a cluster, Williams said. These workers will wear facial covering. They will work, eat and sleep separately from COVID-19-negative employees.
“We would monitor (these asymptomatic workers). We would retest them within 48 hours. If any develop signs or symptoms, we would have to deal with them as possible cases. If they turn negative, they could go back and work with the rest of the workforce,” explained Williams.
Other industries or locations in Canada have not attempted this strategy, Williams said. “As we learn more, we change things. We adapt,” he added.
Ontario government representatives developed this plan to address the COVID-19 pandemic while also trying to keep farms running and the economy recovering.
“By providing both farmers and employees with economic certainty, this three-point plan will allow the rapid scaling-up of testing in agri-food sector workplaces across the region,” said Christine Elliot, deputy premier of Ontario.
Ford expressed gratitude for the cooperation of farmers and their staff.
“I want to thank the farmers, I really do. Thank you to the farmers for their help,” Ford said. “We stand shoulder to shoulder with our farmers and our workers. We’re here to support the essential workers who come here every year to help put food on our tables.”