An Alberta meat-packing plant hit by the largest single-site outbreak of COVID-19 in Canada plans to reopen within days, after shutting down for two weeks when hundreds of workers fell ill with the virus and one woman died.
Cargill announced Wednesday that its meat-packing plant near High River, Alta., will reopen with one shift beginning May 4 — a move the union representing the workers says is “incredibly concerning.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, the facility had been linked with more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases, 821 of whom are workers. One worker in her 60s died, and her husband was hospitalized with the illness.
The Cargill plant and a JBS plant in Brooks, Alta., which has 276 cases among its workers, supply more than two-thirds of Canada’s beef.
All employees who are eligible to return to work in the harvest department are asked to report to work, Cargill said.
The company said returning employees must be healthy, and must not have had contact with anyone who has COVID-19 for 14 days.
“We look forward to welcoming our employees back and are focused on our ongoing commitment to safety,” Jon Nash, Cargill Protein’s North American lead, said in a release.
“We know being an essential worker is challenging and we thank our team for working so hard to deliver food for local families, access to markets for ranchers and products for our customers’ shelves.”
The company said new safety measures have been introduced since the facility shut down.
Some employees at the plant previously accused the company of ignoring physical distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation.
After the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, no preventative inspection was done. A live video inspection by Alberta Occupational Health and Safety, conducted after dozens at the plant were already sick, concluded the work site was safe to remain open.
Days later, the outbreak had grown to hundreds and the plant was shut down after the woman’s death.
Union pursuing legal action
UFCW local 401 spokesperson Michael Hughes said the union was not informed ahead of time that the facility was set to reopen.
“We’ve learned this at the same time everyone else has,” Hughes said.
“It’s incredibly concerning that Cargill would be even thinking of reopening in a matter of days while presiding over the biggest outbreak in [Canada] and while half of its employees are sick with COVID-19.”
Hughes said Cargill has not adopted safety initiatives suggested by the union. He said the union will now work with its legal counsel to pursue action to try to keep the plant from opening.
The union is concerned Cargill has been “emboldened” by U.S. President Donald Trump’s executive order Tuesday to compel meat plants to continue operating, he said.
“If COVID-19 is a fire, they’re throwing us into it.”
During the shutdown, Cargill said it would reduce the likelihood of carpooling by providing buses with protective barriers between the seats to transport workers. Those employees who live in the same household will not be required to follow the carpooling restrictions, the company said.
The company says it has worked with OHS through virtual and in-person tours, and has added additional barriers in the washrooms and reassigned lockers to allow for more spacing.
Protective barriers have also been installed on the production floor to allow for more spacing between employees, the company said, and face shields have been introduced in places where protective barriers are not possible.
Earlier today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wouldn’t say whether Canada would follow the Trump administration’s lead in compelling meat-processing plants to remain open, stressing worker safety as a priority.
Cargill, Smithfield Foods Inc., JBS USA and Tyson — the world’s biggest meat companies — have paused operations at around 20 slaughterhouses and processing plants in North America.
As of Wednesday’s provincial update, 276 employees have tested positive at the JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks, about 180 kilometres southeast of Calgary.