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The union representing workers at a hog-processing plant in central Alberta is urging officials to delay the facility’s reopening, arguing government and company authorities have not done enough to protect employees from the coronavirus, which infected hundreds at the site before it shuttered last month.

Olymel voluntarily suspended operations at its Red Deer facility on Feb. 15 as an outbreak of COVID-19 escalated. The firm is now preparing for a “potential reopening” on March 3, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. But a healthy majority of workers at the Olymel plant feel so uncertain about their safety that they are prepared to refuse work, according to a letter signed by Thomas Hesse, the president of UFCW Local 401. Meanwhile, Alberta Health Services (AHS) gave Olymel a list of safety recommendations ahead of the potential reopening.

The coronavirus flourishes in meat-processing facilities, where labourers often work side-by-side and share crowded common areas such as lunchrooms. UFCW said it will not deem the plant safe until Olymel meets a number of demands, including benchmarks that would trigger slower production or a shutdown; “full compensation” for employees for the days the plant was shuttered; a $4-an-hour premium for work during the pandemic; and measures such as staggered breaks and more microwaves in the lunchroom to promote physical distancing.

“Please know that unless you can guarantee no one else will become ill and no one else will die, the rushed reopening of Olymel’s Red Deer plant and the resulting consequences will be on your conscience – and yours alone,” Mr. Hesse wrote.

The letter, not addressed to anyone in particular, was distributed by the union to senior officials with Alberta Health Services late Monday and released to the public on Tuesday. Olymel said on Tuesday that it has not yet decided when the plant will reopen.

The plant closing created a backlog of about 80,000 to 90,000 animals, which should be cleared within four to five weeks of reopening, the company said. Winnipeg MP Jim Carr, who serves as federal special adviser for the Prairies, indicated Tuesday that Ottawa is prepared to help pork producers affected by the closing.

“If needed, federal funding will be there to assist pork producers with extraordinary herd management costs, such as additional feed costs,” Mr. Carr told reporters.

Kerry Williamson, a spokesman for AHS, said the provincial health authority made a series of safety recommendations after inspecting the plant and reviewing Olymel’s reopening plans on Monday. AHS “anticipate[s]” the recommendations will be implemented prior to reopening the plant, Mr. Williamson said. They include capacity limits in locker rooms and washrooms; removing reusable dishes from break rooms; enhanced cleaning and disinfecting schedules for washrooms, break rooms and locker rooms; more hand-sanitizing stations; and increased training for staff.

AHS will continue to offer COVID-19 testing at the site, Mr. Williamson said. “This prevalence testing will help monitor for asymptomatic spread among employees and their families.”

Three people have died from contracting the virus as part of the Olymel outbreak. Alberta has traced 511 cases of COVID-19 to the meat-packing facility since November. Of those, 91 were active cases as of Tuesday. By way of comparison, Alberta had connected 297 COVID-19 cases to the plant by Feb. 10, and counted about 125 active cases among staff.

About 1,800 people work at the Olymel site and many of them are from immigrant communities, making containment more difficult because of financial concerns and language barriers. Last week, Alberta formed a committee to strategize how to protect workers in meat-packing plants in light of the faster-spreading variants. This comes roughly a year after the virus ripped through Cargill Ltd.’s operations in High River, where roughly half of its 2,000 employees contracted the virus in the largest workplace outbreak in Canada.

Olymel spokesman Richard Vigneault said the company has not nailed down its reopening plans for the Red Deer plant.

“We sent a note to our employees in case of a reopening, but there’s no decision taken,” he said Tuesday. “We informed our employees about the actions we are taking now, in co-operation with AHS and [Occupational Health and Safety]. This is not an announcement of our reopening.”

Resuming work at the plant would first have to be cleared by AHS and OHS officials, Mr. Vigneault said. “We need the green light to reopen.”

With files from The Canadian Press

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