Three-to-a-bunkhouse rule terminated

Three to a bunkhouse rule terminated

Section 22 order tied local farmers in knots

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Not every inconvenience associated with COVID-19 is destined to last forever.


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In late December, Norfolk and Haldimand’s acting medical officer of health rescinded a regulation regarding bunkhouse quarantines that caused local farmers numerous headaches while forcing some to let crops rot in the field for lack of help.

“This order was rescinded after the acting medical officer of health has determined the directions issued have no longer been deemed necessary,” Dr. Matthew Strauss, Norfolk and Haldimand’s acting medical officer of health, said in a statement Dec. 23.

“All employers of workers – migrant farm workers – are expected to follow all requirements under the Federal Quarantine Act where applicable.”

The Section 22 order in question was issued March 24, 2020 by Dr. Shanker Nesathurai, Norfolk and Haldimand’s medical officer of health prior to Strauss.

The order was contentious because it capped occupancy of bunkhouses in Norfolk and Haldimand at three – regardless of floor area – for the duration of a worker’s mandatory 14-day quarantine period upon arrival in Canada.

No other health district in Canada was under this constraint. Rather, all other farmers were required – at a minimum – to follow the federal guideline for bunkhouse quarantines.

The federal standard capped bunkhouse occupancy during the quarantine period at the maximum number of individuals who could safely social distance two meters at all times. As such, bunkhouse occupancy in these jurisdictions was determined by a structure’s available floor area.


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Many farms in Norfolk and Haldimand employ between 50 and 200 migrant farm workers a season.

Ontario legislation allows local medical officers of health, based on their professional opinion, to write public-health orders above and beyond what the province or federal government require.

Nesathurai’s order forced local farmers to find quarantine accommodations outside the health district, often in expensive hotels where incoming workers were not allowed to leave their rooms for two weeks.

The same order prevented quarantined employees from working, creating significant labor shortages that prevented growers from harvesting asparagus and performing spring-related duties in a timely fashion.

“I had workers tell me that – if they had known what they were in for – they wouldn’t have come up,” Simcoe farmer Brett Schuyler – who employs more than 200 migrant workers per season – said Monday. “I’m still baffled that this happened. I can’t think of anywhere in the world where this would have been right. ”

With the financial support of local farmers and area businesses, Schuyler challenged Nesathurai’s order at the Health Services Appeal and Review Board. That appeal was successful. However, Nesathurai and the health unit successfully appealed that ruling to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, after which Schuyler stood down and moved on.

“It’s quite a job running a quarantine program,” Schuyler said. “That’s not the expertise of farmers.


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“The biggest stress was on worker comfort. It was really hard trying to tell workers they will have to isolate for two weeks and that they couldn’t go outside. That was the biggest challenge – the lack of suitable facilities with outdoor access. I know a lot of farmers didn’t want to put their guys through that. ”

For his part, Nesathurai said he imposed the three-person cap so individuals isolating in bunkhouses would feel comfortable and not crowded during their confinement.

COVID-19 vaccines are the major reason – going forward – why bunkhouse occupancy is less of an issue today than in 2020.

There is a consensus in the agricultural community, Schuyler said, that migrant workers coming to Canada should be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they board a plane, eliminating the need for quarantines. Schuyler said farmers are unlikely to hire workers who enlist in the program but refuse to get the jab.

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