Vexed by the vax: rolling out worker inoculations

A weather window allowed this transplanter crew to drop tomato plugs into the ground at night at VanRoboys farm near Chatham, Ontario. One person walks behind to check for any skips or doubles, ensuring an even stand. Growers are used to accommodating changes and will, no doubt, be grateful to schedule vaccinations. Photo by Krystle VanRoboys.

On the far side of yet another dark pandemic episode, farmers will welcome their slow-moving vehicles to be emblazoned with bumper stickers declaring:  WE’VE BEEN VAXED!


For growers, this spring’s COVID-19 inoculation roll-out across the country can’t move fast enough. In British Columbia, starting in April, frontline staff such as grocery store clerks and employees in congregate living quarters will be prioritized to receive the AstraZeneca/SII Covishield vaccine. This would include about 3,500 greenhouse workers confirms Linda Delli Santi, executive director, BC Greenhouse Growers’ Association. 


“I have heard that public health officials are vaccinating workers at the provincial government-sanctioned quarantine hotels upon arrival,” says Delli Santi. “I have also heard that some of my members have had calls from public health to discuss vaccination for the staff on site or if the greenhouse has fewer workers, then arrangements are made to go to a vaccination clinic.” 


It’s premature, though, to estimate how many essential farm workers in Canada will actually agree to be inoculated against COVID-19. 


“Last fall, I think the sentiment amongst workers was about 50/50 sign-up for vaccination,” says Katie Keddy, the health and safety supervisor at Keddy Nursery, Kentville, Nova Scotia. “I’m a bit curious to see if feelings might change this year with cases rising in Jamaica and the vaccine now available.”  


The strawberry and sweet potato operation sources about 40 workers from Jamaica and Mexico through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). That’s just a fraction of the 1,500 workers who arrive in the province annually, many of whom work in the Annapolis Valley tree fruit orchards.


Thankfully, the Maritime provinces experienced fewer cases of COVID-19, says Keddy, but the prevention protocols were just as stringent as anywhere in Canada. “Last year, there were a lot of nerves amongst workers about what they were coming to.”


The notion of “family” took on new meaning, depending on your perspective. Those workers who arrived were quarantined in “family” units in on-farm houses. When their 14 days were up, these units stayed together. They kept separate from locally-sourced employees. No outsiders were allowed in the packing house.


As Keddy explained, the Nova Scotia government never defined what constitutes a “family” so it was hard to determine who could get groceries in nearby New Minas. For her, there was one simple question that was never answered: Is one worker from each family unit on the farm allowed to go to town? 


With two small children, aged five and seven at the time, Phil and Katie Keddy took extra precautions. “I had to take a step back with the kids when the workers arrived,” explains Keddy. “We pulled the kids off the farm.”


With this team mentality, everyone did their jobs and the summer of 2020 was relatively normal. The worry now is about mid-March 2021 regulatory changes by the federal government, demanding that seasonal workers quarantine for three days in a Toronto-area hotel before fanning out to eastern Canada. 


“Our workers are very nervous about flying through Toronto,” says Keddy. “The fear is still there.”  


Uncertainty is a common feeling among seasonal agricultural workers in Ontario. Ricardo Sookhoo, for example, is a little on edge about vaccination plans for seasonal farm workers.  The Trinidadian has been coming to Eek Farms in the Holland Marsh since 2009. 


He has several questions.  What’s in the vaccine?  How is it made?  Are there side effects?  


“It’s not just me with concerns,” says Sookhoo. “If 5,000 migrant workers get the vaccine and 3,000 get sick, who’s going to compensate us?” 


As the vaccinations for essential workers roll out this spring, he’s still pondering his choices.


“Workers are in a catch-22,” says Francine Burke, the new program coordinator for the Durham Region Migrant Worker Ministry. She works with a team east of Toronto with outreach to about 420 workers. Their mission is to distribute welcome kits as well as Service Canada information.


“Our job is education not persuasion,” she says. “However, we should point out the long-term consequences to future employment if the Canadian government decides that proof of vaccination is needed to come back to Canada. We need to keep that dialogue neutral.”


Effective the first day of spring, federal rules on arriving temporary foreign workers changed for some provincial jurisdictions such as Ontario.  If they were taking private transport to on-farm quarantines, they could proceed with a 10-day, self-testing kit. However, test results are not being processed in a timely manner. And that in turn, is interrupting vaccination schedules.


As Phil Tregunno, chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers, explains, he hand delivered test kits to the Switch Health processing centre in Mississauga, Ontario only to have 10 results “lost in the system.”  The consequence was that those workers were still in isolation and missed the bus, literally. On March 22, the Niagara Region Public Health Unit organized vaccinations for more than 55 Tregunno Farms workers at a nearby community centre. 


“Yes, there’s some hesitancy among workers,” says Tregunno. “But after the shots were done, they said, ‘Oh it’s easy.’” 


He credits educational flyers and meetings at the farm with the workers’ buy-in. He’s hopeful that the remaining workers will get their vaccinations soon. 


These hurdles are prompting the Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association (OFVGA) to lobby the federal government for temporary foreign workers to be vaccinated upon arrival at the airport. 


“It would be a logical step to offer vaccines at the airport before workers reach the bunkhouses,” says Bill George, chair, Ontario Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Association. “I realize that some education would be needed and that might be one of the hiccups.”


As for robust roll-outs, he expects that May will end up being the vaccination target month for many TFWs in Ontario. That window offers more time for educational materials, in culturally appropriate language, to reach the workers.


If there’s one thing to grasp in the middle of this muddle, it’s the simple fact that although none of the vaccines are perfect, they all prevent hospitalization and death. And after last summer’s tragedies, that in itself is worth all the hardship. 

Karen Davidson, editor of The Grower, goes 'Behind The Scenes' of this cover story and speaks with Phil Tregunno, chair of the Ontario Tender Fruit Growers. Phil discusses how he overcame initial resistance by his seasonal agricultural workers to get vaccinated.  Listen to the podcast here >>


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Monday, March 29, 2021

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