Alberta slaughterhouse to close temporarily amid growing COVID-19 outbreak that has claimed one life
After death of their colleague, workers shared fears of unsafe environment at Olymel plant in Red Deer, Alta.
Darwin Doloque's friends describe him as an eternal optimist, one who couldn't say no to anyone who needed help.
On Jan. 28, the 35-year-old permanent resident who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines was found dead at his home in Red Deer, Alta. The cause of death was attributed to a case of COVID-19 linked to his work at the city's Olymel meat-processing plant.
Late Monday — nearly three weeks after Doloque's death and in an abrupt change of position hours after telling CBC News it planned to remain open — Olymel said it would temporarily shut down the plant, due to the rapidly growing COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.
As of Monday, 326 employees at the plant had tested positive for COVID-19, nearly double the count of 168 on Feb. 6. Of those, 192 remain active.
CBC News spoke to six employees of Olymel for this story and agreed to withhold their names because they fear they could lose their jobs if they are identified.
During the interviews, workers said they were afraid to go to the plant, fearing for their own health and the health of their families. Several described negative effects on their mental wellbeing, as the outbreak continued to spread.
Operations to cease over next few days
The company said Monday that management now believes the plant can no longer continue normal operations in a safe and efficient manner.
Operations will cease over the next few days, Olymel said, and the company will continue to investigate how the outbreak grew so large.
Less than four hours earlier, company spokesperson Richard Vigneault had said neither Alberta Health Services (AHS), the provincial government, nor the company, itself, had yet come to the conclusion that the Red Deer plant should temporarily close. The company's statement Monday evening did not state the reason for the change, but Vigneault said an assessment of the situation that afternoon led the company to a new conclusion.
The rapid increase in cases had drawn a warning from AHS, which on Thursday sent a letter to the company cautioning the outbreak "has become a concern for public health."
In the letter, which was obtained by CBC News, AHS said around one in five workers was believed to be infected and spreading the virus.
The plant has a workforce of close to 1,850 and about 60 per cent of the staff hold at least one other job outside the slaughterhouse.
A spokesperson for Alberta's labour minister said Sunday that occupational health and safety (OHS) officials had inspected the facility 14 times, remotely and in-person, since the outbreak began in mid-November, deeming the plant safe to remain open.
Both AHS and OHS said they were not involved in the plant's decision to close.
Struggling to breathe
One worker, who has tested positive for COVID-19, struggled to gather the breath to share his story between bouts of coughing.
"We workers, we feel insecure. We feel unsafe inside the plant," he said over the weekend, before Monday's announcement. "We are hoping that they will close temporarily."
"We don't know what to do.… We are hoping the government will help us."
His illness started with a headache. Before he realized he was symptomatic, he had spread the infection to his entire family.
With everyone sick, he said he worries how they will make rent.
"We are all positive and now we don't have work," he said. "We have a big problem."
We don't know what to do.... We are hoping the government will help us regarding this.- Worker at Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer, Alta.
The union that represents employees at the plant said more than 90 per cent of approximately 600 workers it surveyed through a text-message poll said they wanted the plant to close temporarily, and that 80 per cent of respondents reported feeling unsafe at work.
Tom Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, said Sunday the union had been in contact with the provincial government and the company to discuss concerns the workplace had become dangerous, but both had been largely unresponsive.
"We've been very disappointed that, even at this stage, we haven't seen big corporations and the government of Alberta be responsive to what's become the terror of Albertans," Hesse said.
The union had called for a temporary shutdown of the facility on Feb. 5.
On Monday, the union said in a release that it was grateful to see the concerns expressed by workers had led to a resolution that will save lives.
"It's clear that mounting pressure, from the union and the media, succeeded in forcing action on this dangerous situation," Hesse said.
Vigneault said earlier on Monday that Olymel has fully co-operated with AHS "to support various actions on our site to control the outbreak."
Those actions included COVID-19 testing, regular information updates provided to employees, and maintaining a list of employees' close contacts, he said.
These are in addition to a variety of other measures "already in place since the beginning of the pandemic," Vigneault said.
The company said the union and its hog suppliers have been informed of the pending closure.
Concerns over swab testing
Other workers said they felt the procedures surrounding testing were insufficient given the numbers of their co-workers who have tested positive for the virus.
When Doloque died, people "started to get paranoid," said one worker.
That employee said they asked the company nurse if they should continue to work while awaiting the results of their COVID-19 test. "Yes, because you guys need money," the worker said the nurse told them.
The company said it did not have information relating to that specific case, but would investigate.
Another worker also raised concerns about swab tests.
"They send the people back inside without the result, and they get the result and they end up tested positive. So it's already inside," said the worker, who has also tested positive for COVID-19.
"After that man passed away, there were a lot of people who were a close contact, and then of course they went to work and they didn't get tested," the employee said. "The next thing you know, they tested positive. It's all over the place."
Before Monday's announcement, Vigneault said Olymel's policy dictates employees showing or declaring symptoms are not allowed to work.
Close contacts who chose not to be tested would have to complete the 14-day isolation as a minimum, he said.
'We feel unsafe'
One worker said he feared he'd bring the virus home to his daughter, who is immunocompromised.
He said while Olymel has provided workers with face shields and encourages hand washing, there are areas of the workplace where those measures didn't feel like enough.
"Our cafeteria is very congested," he said. "When we get a break we take off our mask, right? So that we can eat."
In a recent email to staff, employees were warned they could face $1,200 fines for violating public health orders and expect discipline, even termination, should they not comply with company's COVID-19 policies.
Vigneault said the company's surveillance in terms of sanitary measures in place at the plant may reflect "the quality of information and honesty," of the employee.
"We have strong controls to know where a worker was during the work shift but our weakness is how an employee behaved in private," Vigneault said. "So we rely on the employee's honesty to help us."
Company was compliant with public health orders: AHS
AHS said its inspectors had been in daily contact with the company and visited the site on multiple occasions since the start of the outbreak to identify areas for improvement, should those arise.
The company remains compliant with public health orders, AHS said.
"Many measures were previously undertaken early on in the pandemic, and the site continues to take proactive steps to enhance their practices and mitigation measures," AHS said.
It said health workers provided a second round of on-site testing for COVID-19 between Feb. 3 and 5.
Other meat plants battle outbreaks
Meat plants have been home to many of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic.
There are currently eight outbreaks at meat processing or packing facilities in Alberta, including one at Cargill in High River, where 950 workers tested positive. A class-action lawsuit and police investigation are underway in that case.
Workers at Cargill told CBC News at the time they were instructed to return to work after testing positive for COVID-19 and while symptomatic.
Workers at both plants describe similar environments — a majority- immigrant population working a fast-paced, high-stress job in close quarters and feeling like they have little recourse.
Those people who have more access to power and privilege seem to get better protections than those who do not.- Sheila Block, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives
"I find that we are here again a giant failure of public policy," said Sheila Block, with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
"We've learned a lot about this disease over the last 11 months and it seems like the lessons that we've learned aren't applied equally … those people who have more access to power and privilege seem to get better protections than those who do not."
Block said the prevalence of outbreaks in low-wage, marginalized communities shows a need to look at instituting further supports both in and outside of the workplace — ensuring people have safe ways to travel to and from work, widespread access to workplace testing and income supports that allow them to stay home if sick.
Plant had been ramping up production
In the letter sent by AHS to the company, it largely focuses on staff responsibility — reminding workers to self-isolate, notify all employers of a positive test, or risk a fine.
The letter makes two requests of management: that employees be required to be tested if they have previously not been swabbed or have tested negative, and that management monitor breaks to ensure employees keep distance from one another.
Block said, in her view, it's immoral to lay blame at the feet of individual employees. She said it's the government's responsibility to set and enforce baseline rules to keep workers safe.
"These are the workers that allow those of us, who have the privilege to do so, to continue to work from home and be safe," she said. "We absolutely have to have government step up and value these workers' lives as much as they value the lives of people who can afford to protect themselves," she said.
Olymel is currently hiring, and the union had said that prior to Monday's late-day announcement, the plant had been ramping up production.