Windsor-Essex waives 3-week delay on arrival of agricultural workers

Ontario’s Windsor-Essex Region Public Health Unit has backtracked on a plan to prevent the arrival of temporary farm workers amid the Omicron surge.

The Windsor-Essex County Health Unit (WECHU) said on Friday that a letter of instruction issued earlier this week has been rescinded, effective immediately.

This letter stated that employers must cancel, suspend or postpone the arrival of temporary foreign workers in the region between January 13 and February 1.

“Throughout the week, the health unit has worked with all levels of government to formulate a resolution to this issue,” WECHU said in a statement Friday.

“Through the concerted efforts of local health care, housing and social service leaders… the region has been able to collectively establish the level of support needed to meet the isolation requirements of workers who are ill or who have been exposed.”

About 50 new isolation and recovery spaces will be available by Saturday, with more to be added soon, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture.

Hilda MacDonald, the mayor of Leamington, Ont., says the overturning of the health unit order is “fantastic” news. (Radio Canada)

A ministry statement says about 400 farm workers will arrive in Windsor-Essex over the next three weeks, mostly from Jamaica and Mexico. Most workers in these countries will be double-vaccinated against COVID-19, but all will be offered a first, second or booster dose at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

The plan to delay the arrival of workers has raised fears it could cost farmers millions and lead to massive food waste.

The flip-flop is a relief, says Joe Sbrocchi, general manager of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers.

“I think the producers…feel good that it’s been resolved,” Sbrocchi told CBC News. “We can go on and do what we are supposed to do, which is to grow and produce food for Canadians.”

Sbrocchi says the short-lived order has caused “a lot of anxiety” but, to his knowledge, no flights have been canceled or pushed back because of it.

He says the health unit acted “hastily.”

But the mayor of Leamington, Ont., a major farming community in the region, disagrees. Hilda MacDonald said on Friday that the health unit was “pushed against the wall and seen [the order] as their only alternative.”

“Sometimes we have to take drastic measures to get results,” MacDonald said.

Public health officials estimate that 2,000 workers have already arrived in the area. During the peak growing season, 8,000 to 10,000 workers are expected.

As of Thursday, there were 66 cases of COVID-19 among workers and another 173 in isolation, according to WECHU.

Joe Sbrocchi of the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers says the short-lived order has caused “a lot of anxiety” among local growers. (Jason Viau/CBC)

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