Farming by its very nature is rather isolating. That’s good news in the midst of a national “social distancing” push in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. But being somewhat isolated doesn’t mean that farmers, their families, or their employees aren’t at risk.
Portia MacDonald-Dewhirst, executive director at Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council, says “There are lots of complexities about managing the COVID-19 situation within the agricultural sector.” It’s important to keep up to date with information from the Government of Canada and provincial ministries on the latest — what’s open, what’s closed, how to limit personal exposure, and more.
“Keep up to date — that’s the biggest thing! And I say that knowing that’s not so easy because we are now having daily press conferences from the Prime Minister and from the federal ministers…so it’s not always easy to keep up to date,” she says.
Many producer groups and industry associations are posting pertinent information on websites and emailing patrons directly. Many companies are still operating, but may limit face to face contact — it’s best to call ahead or heed any signs posted.
The CAHRC has created a one-stop shop for people worried about this and workers needing to manage. You can find that here. “That’s a dedicated web page that provides information and tips on COVID-19, including links to those really important updates that are being provided.”
When it comes to employees, make sure people understand the rules, and what you expect of them if they’re feeling unwell or if they’ve been exposed, and let them know about your leave policies.
Now is the time to over-communicate if anything, MacDonald-Dewhirst says. “According to those authorities, as an employer, you are not allowed to discriminate against somebody because they are sick with this illness,” so you will need to accommodate self-isolation.
“The other piece that’s really important as an employer is you aren’t to disclose information about your employees to other employees. So if Jane on your team tells you that she’s been exposed and needs to self-isolate, you need to be careful about how much of that information you share.” You should let the employees know, but be careful about what you say and how much information you disclose.
There’s also the issue of several generations working together in close quarters on the farm. Older people are more likely to face severe complications from COVID-19, and farms should have a plan to mitigate the risk to older generations.
“If you’re sick, you need to take care of yourself, and you need to be isolated,” she says. Remember practice good hand washing techniques, cough or sneeze into your elbow, and make sure you’re washing down high-touch areas at home and in the shop or office.
“It’s important that we’re protecting ourselves, our families, our neighbours, our colleagues — the whole gamut. This is a community event, it’s a public health crisis, and it needs to be taken seriously, so we all have a role to play,” she says. Now is the time to help each other.