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Fernando, a meat cutter at Cargill in High River, tested positive for COVID-19, and had trouble getting answers from HR or the company nurses. He wishes Cargill had been more transparent, and acted more quickly. “All I can say,” he said, “is it’s too late.”

Todd Korol/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

On the disassembly line, staff at Cargill Ltd.’s beef slaughterhouse worked side by side and across from one another as they broke down carcasses. The Alberta plant, located near High River, about a half-hour drive south of Calgary’s city limits, processes 4,500 head of cattle each day; that kind of efficiency demands proximity. Without major changes to the speed or configuration of the line, it was impossible for workers to keep their distance to minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus.

It was March, and Cargill wasn’t widely supplying face masks, so workers procured their own or settled for makeshift alternatives. One man went to the local hospital and got a mask from a sympathetic nurse; he reused it every day for three weeks. One woman brought her own N-95 respirator mask, but she ditched it because it caused her glasses to fog up with steam. Another tied a bandana around his head and hoped for the best.

All three caught COVID-19. And they are barely in the minority at the plant that employs roughly 2,000 people. As of Friday, 921 workers had tested positive for the virus.

Most people wouldn’t think Canada’s largest single site for a COVID-19 outbreak would be a slaughterhouse – but it is. The second largest is at another meat-packing plant – JBS Canada’s beef facility in Brooks, Alta., where 390 workers have tested positive. The two plants alone have more cases than the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador combined. Each of the facilities has recorded one COVID-19 death.

There are many factors that make slaughterhouses so prone to an outbreak. Close quarters in the plant. A vulnerable population. Language barriers. And one more thing: Meat-packing plants operate out of the spotlight, primarily staffed by people born and raised abroad.

In response to the global pandemic, governments declared certain sectors – health care, grocery, sanitation – as essential services. Workers in these sectors are being celebrated as heroes. But thousands of workers at meat-packing plants across the country have kept on working without the same fanfare. They are the people who do the jobs that Canadians don’t want – and don’t want to know much about.

To understand how the virus managed to spread so quickly, The Globe interviewed 21 Cargill employees across multiple departments, as well as union representatives, politicians, food inspectors, doctors, immigrant services providers and community members. Individuals who expressed privacy concerns or fears about workplace reprisal were granted anonymity. The Globe obtained correspondence between Cargill and the union representing the workers along with notices posted to the plant’s bulletin board, company letters to employees and a recording of a town hall call with provincial officials, employees and executives.

The investigation revealed an environment in which some workers say they felt pressured – even incentivized – to continue to work. Multiple employees said the company’s medical staff cleared them to continue working despite symptoms, positive COVID-19 test results, incomplete isolation periods and recent travel abroad. Those who were absent for reasons related to COVID-19 were eligible for up to 80 hours of their regular pay. But employees who didn’t qualify for that isolation compensation were initially told that if they weren’t willing and able to work, they would be temporarily laid off, without pay. They were also offered a $500 bonus for not missing a shift in eight consecutive weeks, according to company communications obtained by The Globe.

A file photo from around 2013 shows the inside of Cargill's High River, Alta. meat packing plant and the closed-quarter conditions that contributed to the outbreak epidemic of COVID-19 among its employees.

Handout

Employees weren’t required to wear masks until mid-April, according to interviews with multiple employees and a provincial inspection report. There wasn’t a consistent policy for supplying face shields. Some line workers received them, but others were told there were not enough. However, some employees noticed that managers were wearing them.

Many of those who work at the High River plant are temporary foreign workers and immigrants tied to Calgary’s Filipino community. Bulletin-board postings and letters to employees were provided only in English, causing confusion about compensation, isolation protocols and eligibility for paid time off, workers said.

Alberta’s top doctor said last week that businesses are responsible for taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the workplace. Cargill has said it relies on provincial health experts for advice. Provincial officials initially focused on the conditions at the plant – not on the health risks often connected to working there, including carpooling and multi-family households. Alberta Health Services (AHS) and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) both have the authority to issue stop-work orders. In the case of Cargill, they chose not to. No such order has been issued to JBS.

Cargill announced on April 20 that it was temporarily shuttering its High River plant. Jamie Welsh-Rollo, a union shop steward who operates heavy equipment to seal pieces of beef, said the shutdown came too late. “It was irresponsible of them to try and continue working when they were not able to provide the proper PPE to the workers and the proper social-distancing protocols,” she said.

Cargill said Wednesday that it plans to reopen on May 4, with reduced capacity and new mitigation measures. In a statement Friday night, Cargill spokesman Daniel Sullivan said the company escalated health and safety precautions at the plant over the months of March and April. “We trust the reviews in process will conclude that we took the extra steps to follow health guidance and prioritize the safety of our workers,” said Mr. Sullivan. An OHS investigation is currently under way.

JBS Food Canada president David Colwell said in a statement Friday the company has taken “extraordinary measures” to minimize the risk of transmission, including slowing down the line speed at the Brooks plant in March to facilitate physical distancing. The site, run by JBS of Brazil, reduced its processing capacity in April, from two shifts to one. Mr. Colwell said any decision to temporarily shut down the plant would be “based on the best available data and advice from both our team members and officials.”

Meat processing plants in

Canada and U.S.

Thousands of employees at food-processing plants in North America have fallen ill after contracting the novel coronavirus. The rash of illness forced plants to slow production when they did not have enough employees to operate at full capacity. In some cases, they had to completely shutter. The disruptions at major plants has created kinks in the supply chain. Indeed, Cargill Ltd.’s plant in High River and JBS Canada’s operation in Brooks together account for roughly 70 per cent of the country’s beef production.​

Federally registered meat establishments and their licensed operators

Slaughterhouse

Other processing plant

Establishments that produce meat, poultry, and/or egg products regulated by FSIS

Slaughterhouse

Other processing plant

CANADA

6

3

5

4

2

1

7

U.S.

0

500

KM

March 29 - Yamachiche, Que.: Olymel, a Canadian company that slaughters, processes and distributes pork, poultry and turkey, announces it will halt operations at this hog plant for 14 days after nine confirmed cases of COVID. The company said operations would resume April 14.

1

April 8 - Brampton, Ont.:

Maple Leaf Foods closes its Brampton poultry plant after a second and third worker tests positive for COVID. On April 14, it is reported that a further two workers also test positive, bringing the total to five.

2

April 20 - High River, Alta.:

Cargill announced plans to idle the facility. Cargill said it will resume operations at High River on May 4.

3

Around April 21 - Brooks, Alta.:

JBS drops one of its two shifts as the number of COVID-19 cases in its ranks climbs.

4

April 20 - Vancouver, B.C.:

Vancouver Coastal Health closed United Poultry Co. Ltd. after 28 positive cases confirmed

5

April 24 - Coquitlam, B.C.:

Fraser Health ordered Superior Poultry Processors Ltd. to close after 25 employees tested positive for COVID. The facility is a sister operation to United Poultry.

6

April 24 - Breslau, Ont.:

Pork processor Conestoga Meats told local media it will stop operations the following week after some workers tested positive.

7

MURAT YÜKSELIR, CARRIE TAIT AND STEPHANIE CHAMBERS / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Meat processing plants in Canada and U.S.

Thousands of employees at food-processing plants in North America have fallen ill after contracting the novel coronavirus. The rash of illness forced plants to slow production when they did not have enough employees to operate at full capacity. In some cases, they had to completely shutter. The disruptions at major plants has created kinks in the supply chain. Indeed, Cargill Ltd.’s plant in High River and JBS Canada’s operation in Brooks together account for roughly 70 per cent of the country’s beef production.​

Federally registered meat establishments and their licensed operators

Establishments that produce meat, poultry, and/or egg products regulated by FSIS

Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse

Other processing plant

Other processing plant

CANADA

6

3

5

4

2

1

7

U.S.

0

500

KM

March 29 - Yamachiche, Que.: Olymel, a Canadian company that slaughters, processes and distributes pork, poultry and turkey, announces it will halt operations at this hog plant for 14 days after nine confirmed cases of COVID. The company said operations would resume April 14.

1

April 8 - Brampton, Ont.:

Maple Leaf Foods closes its Brampton poultry plant after a second and third worker tests positive for COVID. On April 14, it is reported that a further two workers also test positive, bringing the total to five.

2

April 20 - High River, Alta.:

Cargill announced plans to idle the facility. Cargill said it will resume operations at High River on May 4.

3

Around April 21 - Brooks, Alta.:

JBS drops one of its two shifts as the number of COVID-19 cases in its ranks climbs.

4

April 20 - Vancouver, B.C.:

Vancouver Coastal Health closed United Poultry Co. Ltd. after 28 positive cases confirmed

5

April 24 - Coquitlam, B.C.:

Fraser Health ordered Superior Poultry Processors Ltd. to close after 25 employees tested positive for COVID. The facility is a sister operation to United Poultry.

6

April 24 - Breslau, Ont.:

Pork processor Conestoga Meats told local media it will stop operations the following week after some workers tested positive.

7

MURAT YÜKSELIR, CARRIE TAIT AND STEPHANIE CHAMBERS / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Meat processing plants in Canada and U.S.

Thousands of employees at food-processing plants in North America have fallen ill after contracting the novel coronavirus. The rash of illness forced plants to slow production when they did not have enough employees to operate at full capacity. In some cases, they had to completely shutter. The disruptions at major plants has created kinks in the supply chain. Indeed, Cargill Ltd.’s plant in High River and JBS Canada’s operation in Brooks together account for roughly 70 per cent of the country’s beef production.​

Federally registered meat establishments and their licensed operators

Establishments that produce meat, poultry, and/or egg products regulated by FSIS

Slaughterhouse

Slaughterhouse

Other processing plant

Other processing plant

GREENLAND

Yukon

NWT

Nunavut

B.C.

CANADA

Alta.

5

Sask.

6

3

Que.

N.L.

Man.

4

PEI

N.B.

Ont.

1

N.S.

7

2

U.S.

0

500

KM

MEXICO

March 29 - Yamachiche, Que.: Olymel, a Canadian company that slaughters, processes and distributes pork, poultry and turkey, announces it will halt operations at this hog plant for 14 days after nine confirmed cases of COVID. The company said operations would resume April 14.

April 8 - Brampton, Ont.:

Maple Leaf Foods closes its Brampton poultry plant after a second and third worker tests positive for COVID. On April 14, it is reported that a further two workers also test positive, bringing the total to five.

1

2

April 20 - High River, Alta.:

Cargill announced plans to idle the facility. Cargill said it will resume operations at High River on May 4.

Around April 21 - Brooks, Alta.:

JBS drops one of its two shifts as the number of COVID-19 cases in its ranks climbs.

3

4

April 24 - Coquitlam, B.C.:

Fraser Health ordered Superior Poultry Processors Ltd. to close after 25 employees tested positive for COVID. The facility is a sister operation to United Poultry.

April 20 - Vancouver, B.C.:

Vancouver Coastal Health closed United Poultry Co. Ltd. after 28 positive cases confirmed

6

5

April 24 - Breslau, Ont.:

Pork processor Conestoga Meats told local media it will stop operations the following week after some workers tested positive.

7

MURAT YÜKSELIR, CARRIE TAIT AND STEPHANIE CHAMBERS / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GOVERNMENT OF CANADA; U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

‘OUR ANTENNAE WENT UP’

Founded in 1865 as a family business, Minneapolis-based Cargill is one of the largest agricultural companies in the world. The company is controlled by 100-plus family members, including 14 billionaires in what has been described as one of the largest concentrations of wealth in any family-controlled business.

The plant near High River, a town of 13,000, is divided into two parts. The harvest floor, which is referred to by many as the kill floor, is where the cattle are stunned, bled, skinned and gutted. It’s hot, steamy and noisy with the sound of heavy machinery. Fabrication is where carcasses are broken down and different cuts and grinds of meat are packaged. Fans circulate cold air as hundreds of workers, most of them standing at a conveyor belt, carry out their monotonous tasks over a nine-hour shift.

“There’s hundreds – thousands – of people moving through very limited spaces,” said Thomas Hesse, the president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents workers at the plant. “Narrow hallways. Small washroom areas. Small locker areas … .

“Our antennae went up as soon as we started to hear about COVID. We thought to ourselves, ‘My goodness, how is this going to translate into packing houses?’ ”

Cargill said its first COVID-19 safety measures at the plant began on February 26, with personal hygiene protocols and communications about transmission-prevention. Beginning in March, the company phased in the use of masks, “as supplies were available,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The company also started taking steps to increase physical distancing for employees who were not on the line, including staggering break times, putting up heated outdoor tents and opening new spaces for workers to eat lunch. The company also installed dividers in the cafeteria and locker rooms, ramped up sanitation protocols, reduced the size of training groups, and screened employees for signs of COVID-19 before they entered the plant.

But several employees said they became anxious when they noticed that their co-workers were increasingly missing shifts because of suspected cases of COVID-19. It did not help that the on-site nurses began keeping the door to their office closed. Employees told The Globe that, usually, they can walk in and get extra ear plugs or grab an ice pack to soothe their aching muscles. Now, they were supposed to make an appointment or knock. A nurse, wearing gloves and a face shield, would open a window.

Cargill announced a temporary shut down last week of its beef plant near High River, Alta. Officials in the area are dealing with over 400 cases of COVID-19 linked to the plant, including the death of a worker.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The company had a policy in place for individuals who could not work because of the virus, including providing pay if people were absent for reasons related to childcare. Workers who passed by the company bulletin board beginning on March 23 saw a message about another policy: Complete your regularly scheduled shifts for eight consecutive weeks, and you will receive an additional $500. (Employees who got sick with COVID-19 were still eligible for the bonus, as long as they reported back once cleared to return.) Hourly wages were also going up by $2 an hour.

With a baby on the way, a fabrication worker was keen for the extra pay. In early April, he became feverish. He took some Tylenol and felt well enough to continue coming in for a couple of days, even working overtime. He obtained a face shield, but then called in sick the following day with the chills. He has since tested positive.

Another fabrication worker carpools to the plant from Calgary. The same day that the bonus period opened, he started to feel sick. He didn’t have a fever, so he thought he had a case of sinusitis instead of COVID-19. He didn’t stop working until April 2. He later tested positive, along with his wife, two children and fellow carpoolers. “What was happening to us in Cargill,” he said, “was a nightmare.”

On April 5, the company began the process of putting up plastic shields and barriers between employees on the production floor, Mr. Sullivan said.

The next day, the union issued a letter to the plant’s general manager, Dale Lagrange. Mr. Hesse, the local union head, was concerned. The union had become aware of a positive case at the High River facility, and it wanted to know: “Will you be ceasing operations at the affected worksite?” Among other measures, Mr. Hesse urged the company to ensure workers were given adequate PPE. AHS and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which must be on site when slaughter activity is taking place, also learned about the confirmed case on April 6.

Physicians at High River General Hospital started to see COVID-19 cases around April 7, and ramped up precautions in the hospital. Anybody who worked at Cargill was treated as though they had COVID-19, according to Adam Vyse, a doctor in High River and the governance board chair with the Calgary Rural Primary Care Network.

The Seasons High River retirement home traced cases among its work force back to Cargill.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The Seasons High River retirement home, which offers nursing care, also kept a close eye on developments at the plant. Some of its staff live with Cargill employees. One night-shift worker had several daughters who lived with her and worked at Seasons. On April 7, the daughters were sent home to quarantine for 10 days because of their connection to the slaughterhouse. That was also the night-shift worker’s last day of work. She told a Cargill nurse that she had a runny nose and later tested positive. Eight Seasons employees, including six who are closely connected to Cargill workers, have confirmed cases of COVID-19; so far, no residents have tested positive.

The following day, April 8, Cargill’s bulletin board was tacked with a new message. There was now a second confirmed case of COVID-19 at the plant. A night-shift fabrication worker had tested positive. “We MUST follow good social distancing practices,” the message said. “The Alberta government has determined our business and you (our employees) are an ESSENTIAL SERVICE in order to ensure our families and communities have access to a safe and secure food supply.”

A harvest worker said directives like these were frustrating. “They kept telling us to keep a distance,” he said. “But you just can’t.”

Over the weekend, the number of confirmed cases among employees at the plant rose to 38. A female fabrication worker was one of them. She is convinced she caught the virus at the facility. A woman who works beside her had been coughing during the last week of March; the woman later tested positive.

The High River hospital counted sporadic cases over the Easter weekend, but by Monday, physicians escalated their concerns, telling the mayor and a provincial medical officer of health that “we have a significant problem,” Dr. Vyse said. The officials immediately took the concerns seriously, he said. However, there is disagreement in the local medical community on how quickly high-ranking health officials reacted. One doctor treating Cargill employees described futile attempts to flag the escalating crisis. “We were told … not to worry because of all the contact tracing that is going on, and they will take care of it,” the doctor said.

With the confirmed cases now in the dozens, the situation at the High River plant was also coming under public scrutiny. Local media picked up the story. The union issued another open letter dated April 12, demanding the plant shut down for 14 days. “Our Union is very bothered and deeply troubled about your Alberta workplace,” the letter said. “There is no reason to believe that hundreds of individuals in your working environment won’t soon be carrying the virus.” The union filed a formal complaint with OHS.

Jamie Welsh-Rollo, a Cargill union shop steward who also operates heavy equipment, says she grew concerned about a lack of physical distancing in the plant in March. She describes the company’s response to the growing outbreak as “extraordinarily slow and completely irresponsible.”

Todd Korol/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Cargill responded with a letter the following day, stating that it is serious about tackling the outbreak and working with the union to protect employees. “Unfortunately, your open letter of yesterday was highly inflammatory,” the company said. “We believe your letter unnecessarily contributed to increased fear and anxiety amongst employees.”

By Easter Monday, the barriers between employees had been installed throughout the production floor; where partitions were not feasible, face shields were provided, Mr. Sullivan said. But that same day, Cargill dropped the night shift in both fabrication and harvest, cutting the plant’s hours in half. The facility was running low on willing and healthy workers to do their specialized jobs. The company posted a notice to the bulletin board attributing the shift change to the “unforeseen impact of COVID-19 on employee attendance.”

Night-shift workers received a letter explaining the compensation policy. If they were not already covered by isolation pay, not willing or able to work on the day shift, or if work was not available to them, they would be temporarily laid off, without pay. The union told The Globe that the company did not follow through with temporary layoffs and has not issued any records of employment, which are required to apply for Employment Insurance.

The next day, AHS was notified that there were two confirmed cases at JBS’s Brooks meat-packing plant.

‘IT’S TOO LATE’

When a former Cargill employee heard there were 38 confirmed cases at the Cargill plant, she was certain there was a mistake. There had to be more. In one Facebook group alone, she was aware of dozens of workers who were confirmed sick with COVID-19. “The chat group was blowing up with people testing positive,” said the former employee, who has been helping Filipino staff make sense of the company’s English-language communications. “No one really took the employees seriously because the national media and the union keep saying 38, 38, 38. Meanwhile, the employees are saying, ‘I’m positive. I’m positive. I’m positive.’ ”

The disconnect between what was being reported publicly and what was being rumoured at the plant was amplified by the company’s failure to communicate internally about the rising numbers, some employees told The Globe. In addition, privacy concerns meant workers were kept in the dark about who, exactly, had contracted the virus. “You don’t actually know the person who tested positive – you don’t know who he is, you don’t see a name, you don’t see a face,” said another fabrication worker. “There’s rumours.”

Mr. Sullivan said the company has been in “regular communication” with employees on health and safety matters. He encouraged workers to reach out to human resources with any questions. “We want to hear from them,” he said.

On April 15, OHS conducted a tour of the plant in response to a complaint made to provincial Minister of Labour and Immigration Jason Copping. But OHS officials did not set foot in the slaughterhouse. Cargill’s technical safety manager, along with another plant employee and a union shop steward, recorded various parts of the compound, including the tents where workers were being screened, the hallways, lunchroom and fabrication floor. (The virtual tour did not include the harvest floor, because slaughter activities were not taking place that day.) OHS saw that there were plastic partitions between workers on the fabrication line, and was told that as of April 16, employees would be required to wear surgical masks. The plant was deemed safe to remain open.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw is Alberta's Chief Medical Officer.

JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

At the same time, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer, Deena Hinshaw, said the facility was “experiencing a need for increased testing,” and announced that the province would soon open a dedicated assessment centre. Public-health officials, who had visited the plant regularly since April 8, had assured her that all appropriate measures were being taken. She noted that the company had slowed down the line in order to increase the distance between workers.

AHS at this point recognized that its approach needed to be revised for immigrant communities and other vulnerable people, according to Dr. Brent Friesen, a medical officer of health in the zone that includes Cargill. Health officials, for example, had recommended against carpooling without fully recognizing that, for hundreds of people, sharing transportation was not optional. AHS turned to experts in refugee and immigrant health, leaning heavily on the Mosaic Primary Care Network to reach out to affected Cargill employees.

In her daily briefing on April 17, Dr. Hinshaw announced there were now 358 cases linked to the outbreak at Cargill. This includes employees and people that health officials believe were infected by contacts employed at the plant. Available information, she said, suggested that the spread was primarily linked to household transmission. A dedicated outbreak response team was struck. High River doctors set up a drive-through testing site on April 17 in order to divert potential COVID-19 carriers away from the hospital. (AHS opened its swabbing operation a few days later.)

Also over the weekend, a town hall call was held so workers could ask questions of provincial health officials and Cargill executives.

One complained that employees kept trying to get in touch with Cargill’s human resources department, but no one was returning their calls. Jon Nash, the North American lead for the company’s protein division, promised to follow up. Another said he was hearing that asymptomatic people who have been in contact with people who have tested positive were still being asked to come to work. Dr. Jia Hu, a provincial medical officer of health, took that one. “If there was a situation where somebody did not get contacted when there was a positive case, then I would say that perhaps an error was made,” he said. “We make mistakes sometimes.”

Another worker had a question for Mr. Nash: Was it standard practice for nurses to call employees and ask them to come into work even if they were sick? Mr. Nash responded: “The reason our nurses call – I want to be really clear about this – is because we care about you. We’re doing wellness checks.”

One of the fabrication workers who tested positive for COVID-19 said nurses regularly called to check in on him while he was isolating; he said they did not pressure him to return to work. But several other employees who spoke with The Globe said otherwise.

This employee, who works on Cargill’s fabrication floor, says the company failed to communicate internally about the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases. “What hurts me about Cargill is how they withheld information.”

Todd Korol/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

A night-shift fabrication worker who trims the cuts said she started coughing and feeling fatigued in late March, so she notified the Cargill nursing team. She was told to isolate for 14 days. She developed a fever on April 9 and later tested positive for COVID-19. The trimmer informed a Cargill nurse that she had COVID-19, but the nurse said she should go back to work because the initial 14-day quarantine period was over. The worker said her physician told her to stay home for another two weeks; the nurse instructed her to text her supervisor. The trimmer decided to stay home. “I’m very disappointed,” she said.

That sentiment was echoed by many, even by those who expressed gratitude to the company for its role in helping them set up a life in Canada.

When public-health officials and company executives started saying that carpooling and tight living quarters were responsible for the swift rise in COVID-19 cases tied to the plant, workers felt betrayed. “I am upset with them,” said a fabrication worker who came to Canada from the Philippines and is a permanent resident. He said he felt scapegoated.

On April 20, AHS announced that a Cargill worker had died of COVID-19. By several accounts, the employee was a woman in her 60s of Vietnamese descent who worked on the fabrication floor in the trim department. She spoke little English. Through an interpreter, her husband was connected with ActionDignity, an ethno-cultural community group, to find a funeral home that would cremate his wife for a price he could afford. “All he wanted was to have her cremated,” said Marichu Antonio, the executive director of the group, which has been doing outreach to Cargill workers and their families.

Inside a closed Cargill's meat-packing factory in High River, Alberta, barriers between individual stations have been installed to separate individual CFIA inspector stations to contain employee spread of Covid19 before they return to work.

handout

The same day that the Cargill woman’s death was made public, the company announced it was shuttering the plant. There were by then 484 cases tied to the slaughterhouse, including 360 infected employees. In a letter to employees, Cargill said that in order to avoid temporary layoffs, staff would receive pay until the week ending May 1. Workers told The Globe that they are confused about compensation, with some saying they have not received the amounts they expected for their quarantine periods. The union said payroll issues are “very widespread.“

The company said it is not aware of any problems with compensation. “To the best of our knowledge all eligible employees are being paid in accordance with the provisions of the collective agreement,” Mr. Sullivan said.

The Alberta Labour Federation is calling for a criminal investigation into the Cargill outbreak. The provincial NDP wants a public inquiry into the spread of the virus at Cargill and other meat-packing plants, including JBS. The OHS has launched an investigation into what happened at Cargill, and will probe any potential non-compliance related to the health and safety of the workers.

The local union said Friday it has sought a stop-work order for the Cargill plant from OHS. It has also filed an unfair labour practice complaint, naming the company and the provincial government as respondents. It wants the plant to stay closed until the union is able “to ensure the safety of workers.” The complaint to the Alberta Labour Relations Board says that on April 28, AHS officials said in a town hall with workers that eight Cargill employees were in the hospital and five were in intensive care.

Barriers have been installed at stations inside Cargill.

handout

For now, the plant is slated to reopen May 4. OHS and AHS officials will be on site, and new measures will be in place. To reduce carpooling, the company is providing buses retrofitted with barriers between the seats. Cargill has added barriers in the bathrooms and has reassigned employee lockers to facilitate better physical distancing. The province has also arranged accommodation for infected Cargill workers and close contacts who need a place to isolate. AHS said translation services are also being used to explain isolation requirements, details around testing, and information about additional supports that may be necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.

The president of the Canadian Labour Congress said Cargill and the provincial government must both bear responsibility for the outbreak tied to the High River plant. Hassan Yussuff said it “boggles the mind” that JBS continues to operate its Brooks facility, despite the rising number of infected workers. “I understand that the food-supply system is really important for the country,” he said. “But no system is that important, where you put workers lives at risk to continue to operate.”

Fernando, a meat cutter, who is a landed immigrant from the Philippines and tested positive for COVID-19, said he feels let down. He acknowledges that the company did take some steps to contain the outbreak, but not soon enough.

“All I can say,” he said, “is it’s too late.”


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