Coronavirus: Windsor could close migrant farm worker isolation hotel, warns of funding shortfall

Swab samples are stored at a COVID-19 testing facility in this file photo. EPA/LUONG THAI LINH

TORONTO — An isolation centre where migrant farm workers in southwestern Ontario recover from COVID-19 may have to close next month due to a funding shortfall created by a shift in federal support.

In a letter to federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu, the mayor of Windsor, Ont., says a decision by Ottawa to shift responsibility for the centre’s funding from one government department to another resulted in $2 million in costs not being covered.

That means the city, which already pays to staff the centre at a local hotel would have to take on additional costs it can’t afford as pandemic expenses continue to mount.

“The City of Windsor has been forced to consider if we are able to continue with this temporary foreign worker isolation and recovery centre,” Mayor Drew Dilkens said in his letter on Feb. 17.

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When the centre first opened in November, the program was funded through Public Safety Canada, and administered by the Canadian Red Cross.

In December, the federal government notified the city it would shift funding to the Public Health Agency of Canada, and required the local officials to complete a new application form.

During the lengthy application process, Dilkens said it became clear that a 12 per cent fee paid to the Red Cross to administer the centre would not be covered and the city would be on the hook for it.

He said additional new criteria from the public health agency would require the centre to shift its mandate and make its services available to the general public.

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Dilkens said the city already maintains a second centre for the homeless and people in vulnerable communities and adding new “complexities” of an additional open site would require further resources.

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In his letter to Hajdu, he proposes a compromise — grandfathering the current agreement and conditions into the new terms with Public Health Canada.

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“Should (public health) reject these modest amendments, included in our application, then the City of Windsor will not be in a position to accept any grant funding and the (isolation centre) will close at the end of March 2021,” he wrote.

The city’s chief administrative officer also wrote to the federal public health agency last week to make the case for maintaining the current funding arrangement.

Onorio Colucci said the city is projecting a $38-million budget shortfall this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that does not include the additional costs for the isolation centre.

“The current funding for the isolation and recovery centre will end on March 31, 2021, but the need for this site remains,” Colucci said. “We expect site usage to grow in the coming weeks as the region welcomes thousands of temporary foreign agri-farm workers … this spring.”

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He said the isolation centre has been used by 490 farm workers who have contracted COVID-19.

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A spokesman for Hajdu said Tuesday night that the federal government provided funding to start the isolation centre in June 2020. According to their statistics, the site has served 795 workers in that time, but sat idle in September and October.

“These rapid response tools were provided as temporary, backstop measures that were to be supplemented with provincial or municipal support if they were to be required long-term,” Cole Davidson said in a statement.

He said the federal government reached out to the City that it should explore “alternative options” to Canadian Red Cross personnel operating the facility over the long-term.

“Windsor requested that their isolation site continue being operated by (Red Cross) personnel, outside of the original emergency conditions that brought them there,” Davidson said. “(Red Cross) personnel are not a requirement … and their continued presence removes resources from our rapid response tools.”

A spokesman for Ontario’s agriculture minister said the province supports Windsor’s efforts to apply for continued funding for the centre.

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“Minister (Ernie) Hardeman has spoken to Mayor Dilkens and supports his call for the federal government to continue to pay the full cost of the centre,” Avi Yufest said in a statement.

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Thousands of migrant workers take jobs at Ontario farms and greenhouses every spring.

During the first wave of the pandemic, dozens of farm outbreaks were reported across the province. More than 1,780 temporary foreign workers in Ontario tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020, and three died of the virus.

NDP MP Brian Masse, who represents a Windsor riding, said he can’t understand why the previous arrangement needs to change.

“It seems like an incredible amount of effort to sabotage something that was really working well,” he said.

Masse said if the federal government allows the centre to close it will likely have to set up some kind of alternative in the months ahead, and that will cost time, money and possibly lives.

“We had people die by themselves in hotel rooms,” he said. “So, we know we have a record of heartbreak, sorrow and regret. I think we’re going to be liable in different ways.”

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