JBS slaughterhouse in Brooks to increase production after COVID-19 outbreak

A slaughterhouse in Brooks, Alta., where more than 600 workers contracted COVID-19, will increase its production from one shift to two on Thursday.

Meat-processing plant had scaled back to 1 shift, but didn't close, after worker death

A sign outside JBS meat-processing plant at Brooks, Alta., thanks workers for continuing to show up during the pandemic. Hundreds of employees at the plant have contracted COVID-19. (CBC)

A slaughterhouse near Brooks, Alta., where more than 600 workers contracted COVID-19, will increase its production from one shift to two on Thursday.

There are currently 11 active COVID-19 cases among workers employed at the JBS Foods Canada facility, out of a total of 650 cases. One worker has died.

JBS continued to operate the Brooks plant through the height of its outbreak, despite calls from the union for the plant to close, but had scaled production down to one shift.

Rob Meijer, a spokesperson for JBS, said moving from one shift back to two will not increase the number of people in the plant at any single time.

"The health and safety of our team members is our top priority. We have been working closely with public health and labour officials each and every day to implement rigorous risk mitigation practices throughout our facility," he said.

Meijer noted that since January the plant has implemented more than 100 preventative measures, like temperature checks for staff and increased cleaning.

Alberta Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) is investigating the Brooks JBS plant and the Cargill slaughterhouse near High River, Alta., which at one point was the site of the largest COVID-19 outbreak in North America, and saw more than 950 workers test positive and three deaths connected to the outbreak.

The two plants together process about 70 per cent of Canada's beef.

While much of Alberta began the first phase of reopening last week, Brooks is awaiting a decision from the province as to when its restaurants and hair salons will be back in business due to a continued threat of infection in the city. 

A total of 1,090 people out of the approximately 15,000 who live in the small southern Alberta city have contracted COVID-19.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents workers at JBS and Cargill, said its members are afraid to go back to work despite changes to safety procedures but need the money.

"We're still extremely nervous and extremely cautious about any kind of suggestion that the plants are safe," said Michael Hughes from UFCW Local 401.

"In Brooks, 500 people were afraid for their lives because of this terrible virus and we have members at JBS who were sleeping in their cars because they were going to work and didn't want to bring the virus home to their families."

With files from The Canadian Press