There are four more workers at the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Brandon, Man., who have COVID-19, the union that represents workers says.
“[Workers are] scared. They’re scared to go to work,” said Jeff Traeger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832.
A total of eight workers have now tested positive at the pork processing facility in southwestern Manitoba in recent days.
None of the eight confirmed cases are among workers on the production line, Traeger said.
“When the three were announced yesterday, there was a very high absenteeism rate from the plant,” Traeger said on CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio, and many workers said they were going to get tested.
“They don’t feel safe. The cases have now doubled since yesterday, so I suspect that fear will be worse.”
The first employee who tested positive started feeling sick while at work on July 28 and hasn’t been at work since, the union said earlier this week. More than 70 other staff members who may have been exposed went into self-isolation at home after that worker fell sick.
The UFCW represents nearly 2,000 of the roughly 2,300 workers at the facility in Brandon, Traeger said. The city of about 48,300 people is around 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg.
On Friday morning, Premier Brian Pallister said in a news conference he understands workers’ fears, but the province is following the best public health advice available and they should feel confident in their safety.
“I’m scared, too. I’m scared for them, I’m scared for us, I’m scared for every Manitoban,” Pallister said. “I’m scared enough, I think, for everybody.
“But the fact of the matter is that the company there has taken every step that it’s been asked to and more.”
The union and Manitoba opposition parties are calling on Maple Leaf to shut down operations at the plant until Aug. 10 at the earliest, so workers can get tested and the facility can be cleaned.
No plan to halt operations
Maple Leaf told CBC News in a statement Thursday it didn’t plan to halt operations.
The Brandon plant was inspected by officials from public health, workplace safety and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency on Thursday afternoon, Maple Leaf said in a statement posted online.
“The outcome of this inspection was a positive reinforcement of the rigorous steps Maple Leaf Foods is taking to provide a safe work environment and prevent workplace spread of COVID-19,” the statement says. Those measures include barriers, distancing and screening.
The company’s plant in Lethbridge, Alta., also has an employee who tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week, the statement says.
“Investigation into these cases indicates that all are linked to community spread, and not to workplace contact. All affected employees are recuperating at home,” the statement says.
Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba’s chief public health officer, said on Thursday that Public Health hasn’t seen evidence of transmission at the Maple Leaf plant so far.
Roussin said Thursday there’s a cluster of 28 cases in Brandon, 18 of which were announced on Thursday.
The cluster originated with someone who travelled east of the province and did not self-isolate correctly upon return, Roussin said.
‘Extremely limited’ options
Brandon Mayor Rick Chrest said despite concern in the community, he doesn’t believe it’s the role of politicians to weigh in on whether the plant should close.
“This is a health incident and not really a political one,” he said in an interview on CBC Manitoba’s Radio Noon.
Traeger said Maple Leaf employees who are afraid of going to work have few options. Manitoba’s Labour Relations Act gives wokers the right to refuse dangerous work, but Traeger said the law doesn’t apply in the Brandon case because public health officials have said Maple Leaf’s precautions are enough.
“Their choices are extremely limited,” Traeger said. “They can either go to work or they can risk … being absent without leave by not reporting to work.”
The facility is “absolutely huge,” he said, including a cafeteria that seats roughly 1,200 people and a cutting floor that can have anywhere from 600 to 800 people working on it in a day.
He pointed to rapid spread of COVID-19 in other meat processing facilities in North America, including a Cargill Ltd. beef-processing plant near High River, Alta. Three people died and 940 employees tested positive as a result of that outbreak.
“We’re in the same position right now that the Cargill plant was in the very beginning of the outbreak, where we have a small number, a handful, less than 10 people who have the virus,” Traeger said.
“In Cargill, within two days that became 30, and within seven days that became 900.”