Benito Quesada spent some of his final days at Cargill Ltd.’s slaughterhouse in High River, Alta., checking in on the well-being of his colleagues. He was filling in for a fellow union rep as a walking steward, meaning he would have been in contact with swaths of Cargill employees throughout the facility.
Now, the plant’s flags are flying at half-mast in his honour. Mr. Quesada, who came to Canada from Mexico in 2007, died this weekend after being infected with the novel coronavirus. He was 51, according to the union representing labourers at Cargill.
Mr. Quesada is the second employee at Cargill’s High River operation to die from COVID-19, which swept through roughly half of the plant’s 2,000 unionized workers. At work, he was a “brown hat,” a colloquial phrase Cargill employees call shop stewards because these union members wear brown hard hats. At home, he was a husband and father.
Cargill’s operation in High River is the largest single site outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada. Alberta Health first became aware of a positive case among Cargill employees April 6 and the plant halted operations for two weeks starting April 20 after hundreds of employees were infected. A Globe and Mail investigation revealed that Cargill was slow to implement protective measures and when the company did, it was too late.
Thousands of employees at food-processing plants in North America have fallen ill with COVID-19, disrupting the supply chain. There are now three confirmed cases of COVID-19 among workers at Cargill’s Dunlop facility in Guelph, Ont., according to Tim Deelstra, spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 175. Further, Cargill on Sunday said it was halting operations at its meat-processing and packaging facility in Chambly, Que., after 64 unionized workers tested positive for the disease.
UFCW in Alberta is fighting for a stop-work order at the High River facility and has filed an unfair labour-practice complaint with the provincial labour board. Mr. Quesada was a walking steward in April, according to a fellow shop steward. The Globe is not naming him because he worries he may be disciplined as the labour organization battles the company.
Mr. Quesada, a permanent resident who lived in High River, was hospitalized about a month ago. He became a shop steward in 2016 and had worked in the hide room, a gruelling gig in the processing facility.
“I call him always Benito Amigo,” Alvin Siodina, who lived with Mr. Quesada around 2011, said in a text message. “It is really hard to imagine losing someone – a good friend like him – in just a matter of weeks.”
Mr. Siodina, who no longer works at Cargill, has a five-year-old daughter and said his friend had a daughter around the same age.
Ulises David Morales, a fellow employee, said Latinos at the plant mourned Mr. Quesada this week. “Everyone was quiet,” he texted. “It was a different feeling.”
Mr. Quesada, he said, always stuck up for his fellow employees; he was very humble and never turned down a job. “Is hard to put these words together,” Mr. Morales said, adding his colleague will be deeply missed by co-workers and family.
Cargill confirmed Mr. Quesada’s death by putting up posters in the plant with his photo, extending condolences to his family.
Bui Thi Hiep, 67, who had worked for Cargill for 23 years, died of COVID-19 just before the plant temporarily suspended operations. Another COVID-19 victim, Armando Sallegue, 71, had ties to the High River plant. He did not work at the facility, but his son, with whom he lived, did and was a confirmed COVID-19 case. One of JBS Canada’s meat-processing employees in Brooks, Alta., has also died of the disease.
With a report from Tavia Grant
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