Union says 38 confirmed COVID-19 cases at Cargill meat plant cause for closure

The union representing some workers at a meat packing plant south of Calgary says there are dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases at the facility and it should be closed for at least two weeks to come up with a plan.

Minnesota-based company says it's doing what it can to keep workers safe

The union representing some workers at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alta., is calling for the facility to be closed for two weeks on fears of COVID-19. This is a file photo. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

The union representing some workers at a meat packing plant south of Calgary says there are dozens of confirmed COVID-19 cases at the facility and it should be closed for at least two weeks to come up with a plan.

The Cargill plant in High River — about 60 kilometres south of Calgary — has roughly 2,000 workers, and the union said it could be hit hard by the illness, given provincial projections on how the virus spreads.

Last week, Premier Jason Kenney said provincial modelling showed that about one in six Albertans could contract the novel coronavirus. The union noted that one in six of the plant's 2,000 staff equals 333 people.

The union says currently there are 38 confirmed cases at the plant: five salaried employees, four contractors and 29 workers.

Bothered, troubled

United Food and Commercial Workers Canada Union local 401 president Thomas Hesse wrote to plant management Sunday about the situation.

"Our union is very bothered and deeply troubled about your Alberta workplace," Hesse said in the letter, obtained by CBC News.

"There is no reason to believe that hundreds of individuals in your working environment won't soon be carrying the virus."

The nature of the work, Hesse said, is the opposite of social distancing. People work side-by-side in many cases.

He called for the plant to be shut down while maintaining full employee compensation and a meeting with stakeholders.

"Unfortunately, the employer is just not doing enough to protect its employees in this environment," Hesse said. "You need to do more."

Company reducing shifts, raising wages

Minnesota-based Cargill says it is temporarily reducing shifts starting Monday, and some wage increases and bonuses are now in place.

"We also implemented additional safety measures like temperature testing, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, prohibiting visitors, adopting social distancing practices where possible and offering staggered breaks and shift flexibility," Jon Nash said in an email to CBC News.

"Our facility will be back to operating at full capacity as soon as it is safe to do so."

AHS is monitoring

Alberta Health Services declined an interview but in a statement said the health authority is monitoring the situation and has a presence at the plant.

"Inspectors have provided the company with information on disinfection and staff protocols required to ensure safety during the COVID-19 pandemic," spokesperson Bruce Conway told CBC News in an emailed statement.

"There is no issue in relation to food safety at the site. COVID-19 is not a foodborne illness. These enhanced measures will help to ensure staff and products are safe."

Conway refused to provide Cargill-specific case numbers when asked.

The health agency has, however, offered specifics in other cases, such as the McKenzie Towne seniors' home complex.

More than 2-week closure is problematic, prof says

A Dalhousie University professor who specializes in food safety and security says the nature of cattle processing builds in some breathing room.

"A closure at Cargill would be disruptive but not a disaster," Agri-food Analytics Lab director Sylvain Charlebois said.

"If it goes beyond two weeks, that could be quite problematic for the country."

A total of 44 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19, the province reported this weekend.

There were 1,651 confirmed cases, 237 of which involved community transmission. Of the 44 who were hospitalized, 14 were in intensive care. But the number of people who have recovered, 823 on the weekend, was on the rise.

More than 60 per cent of cases are in the Calgary zone. In the Municipal District of Foothills, where High River falls, the area has recorded 67 cases so far, provincial data shows.

With files from Andrew Brown