Calgary

Benito Quesada, union shop steward, identified as 3rd death linked to Cargill COVID-19 outbreak

The third death linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 at a southern Alberta meat-processing plant was Benito Quesada, a union shop steward who had worked at the plant for more than a decade, his union says.

More than 1,500 cases have been tied to the slaughterhouse near High River

From left to right: Benito Quesada, 51; Hiep Bui, 67; and Armando Sallegue, 71, have all died of COVID-19, with their deaths linked to an outbreak at the Cargill slaughterhouse near High River, Alta. Quesada and Bui were workers at the plant, and Sallegue was the father of a worker. (UFCW 401, Action Dignity, Arwyn Sallegue)

The third death linked to an outbreak of COVID-19 at a southern Alberta meat-processing plant was Benito Quesada, a union shop steward who had worked at the plant for more than a decade, his union says.

Quesada, 51, died on the weekend. He contracted COVID-19 in mid-April and spent weeks on a ventilator in a medically induced coma, according to a release from UFCW Local 401 on Tuesday.

He had worked at the Cargill meat-processing plant near High River since 2007. The plant is the site of the largest coronavirus outbreak tied to a single location in Canada.

The first two deaths linked to the outbreak were Hiep Bui, a 67-year-old woman who worked at the plant, and Armando Sallegue, the 71-year-old father of a worker at the plant, who was visiting from the Philippines. Sallegue's funeral was held Sunday evening.

'A quiet, gentle and humble man'

"Benito was a quiet, gentle, and humble man who came to Canada from Mexico to work at the Cargill plant in High River," said UFCW spokesperson Michael Hughes.

"I had the pleasure of meeting Benito for the first time at a shop stewards' training course in 2016. We had many conversations since then, and he always told me how proud he was for having been able to bring his family to Canada."

Shop stewards are members of a union who work for a company and volunteer as a union representative to support their coworkers at the site.

Tents were set up outside of Cargill's facility near High River, Alta., in mid-April, to test workers for COVID-19. (Dan McGarvey/CBC)

A Cargill spokesperson said in a statement emailed Tuesday evening that the company is saddened by the loss of a colleague and dedicated employee.

"We have been in recent contact with his family and have followed up to offer our heartfelt condolences to his wife and family. Benito was a colleague and friend, serving as a partner in his role as a union steward. We are grieving with the community as we face loss and illness together," the statement read.

The company said it would honour Quesada at the plant on Tuesday and continue to fly a flag at half-mast in memory of the two deceased employees.

As of Tuesday there were 25 active cases of COVID-19 among Cargill employees, and 920 employees who have recovered. More than 1,500 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to the plant, which at one point had the largest outbreak in North America.

Employees at the plant have accused the company of ignoring physical-distancing protocols and trying to lure them back to work from self-isolation, even after they have tested positive for COVID-19. 

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 after that inspection, the province's labour minister assured workers the plant was safe. The next day, on April 19, the first employee death was recorded.

Behind statistics are hard-working people, union leader says

"It is important to recognize that behind the statistics are hard-working people who have sought to make a living and support their families in Alberta's meat-packing industry," said UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse.

"Our members bring food to the tables of Canadians, but they also have lives outside the plant and loved ones who are now grieving their loss. We join them in that grief."

The plant was closed for two weeks following the first death but reopened last week with increased safety protocols, the company said.

Critics have renewed calls for the plant to be closed and for an independent or criminal investigation after a recent CBC News report that the company did not engage worker representation in the internal investigation of its outbreak. Occupational Health and Safety is investigating the plant. 

There are two other outbreaks at meat-processing facilities in Alberta.

At JBS in Brooks, there are 44 active cases of COVID-19 and 582 employees have recovered. And at Harmony Beef in Balzac, there are 12 active cases of COVID-19 and 28 have recovered. Both plants remain open.

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