By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press
CALGARY — The union representing workers at a southern Alberta meat-packing plant says some employees don’t feel safe because of an outbreak of COVID-19 and they aren’t showing up for work.
The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 says JBS Canada has been paying a shift premium of $4 an hour to workers at its plant in Brooks — but it’s not enough.
“It didn’t get people to come into work. In fact, we hear that 500 to 1,000 workers haven’t shown up and they’ve had to reduce production to one shift,” Thomas Hesse said Tuesday.
“They cancelled the entire second shift and they’re merging the shifts simply because they don’t have the workers.
“The $4 is not enticing people to come into a place they believe to be unsafe.”
The plant is the second in the area with an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Cargill announced Monday it would be temporarily shutting down its plant just north of High River. On Tuesday, the outbreak stood at 401 cases, including the death of a worker. Another 114 cases in the community are being linked to the meat-packer.
The JBS plant in Brooks had recorded 77 cases as of Tuesday.
JBS said it is trying to ensure its plant remains open and has been providing support for workers and their families infected with the virus.
“We will endeavour to keep our facilities open, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate,” Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA, said in an email.
Bruett said the facility has brought in safety measures, including temperature testing for all workers entering the plant, providing and requiring face masks and physical partitioning on production lines.
He confirmed the plant has reduced its production to one shift per day because of increased absenteeism.
Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents federal meat inspectors, said seven inspectors at the Cargill plant have tested positive for COVID-19.
He said if cases of coronavirus are found, then all meat-packing plants should shut down for 14 days to give workers time to self-isolate. The plants can then reopen.
An Olymel plant in Quebec previously shut down, said Murphy, who added that JBS should stop dragging its feet and follow suit.
“They are postponing the inevitable if they don’t shut down there. You’ve probably got folks in there now that are asymptomatic and are carriers and they’re going to continue to spread the virus.”
Alberta’s chief medical health officer, in announcing the Cargill death Monday, said special teams have been tasked with helping to contain the virus at Cargill and JBS.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the case numbers at the Brooks plant are likely to get worse.
“We have seen some community spread there, and recognize that Brooks has some similar challenges with households that have many people living in those households where there can be difficulty for people to stay away from others if they are sick,” she said.
Hesse said there should have been more decisive action by the companies and the Alberta government to make sure cases didn’t skyrocket at Cargill.
“Now we know of a worker that’s fighting for their life on a ventilator and (is in) a medically induced coma in the hospital. And we’re aware of a woman who has tragically died, who we believe worked in the production area,” Hesse said.
“This didn’t have to happen if the government and employer had acted quickly and acted appropriately.”
In Edmonton, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley criticized Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government for ignoring earlier calls from her caucus and the union to temporarily shut down the Cargill plant and do a thorough safety check after the first case was reported two weeks ago.
“Now we see the consequences of failing to act,” Notley said.
Notley called for immediate assessments at all food-processing plants and temporary shutdowns at the JBS plant and the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer to prevent an outbreak there.