London

Cargill plant in London, Ont., to reopen Friday after 112 COVID-19 cases

A meat-processing plant in London, Ont. that has been shut down for nearly two weeks due to a quickly growing outbreak will reopen on Friday.

Union group calls for pop-up vaccine clinic after quickly growing outbreak at meat plant

A Cargill spokesperson said there are currently 81 active cases as of Tuesday associated with the outbreak at its London, Ont. plant location which has around 900 employees. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

A meat-processing plant in London, Ont., that has been shut down for nearly two weeks due to a quickly growing outbreak will reopen on Friday.

The Cargill facility, which has approximately 900 employees closed earlier this month after 82 people tested positive at the plant. As testing continued, that number would grow to 112 cases.

A spokesperson for the company said there are now 81 active cases associated with the outbreak. 

Dan Sullivan, media relations director with Cargill, said the company has been working closely with public health officials to safely return to operations.

"We continue to prioritize the health and safety of our employees, that's our number one focus. We've been working closely with the Middlesex-London Health Unit and other public health officials to ensure that the appropriate prevention :testing, cleaning in our facilities has taken place and that our employees are following quarantine protocols at home," Sullivan said.

Dan Flaherty, spokesperson for the Middlesex-London Health Unit, said the health unit is working with the plant as it continues to monitor the outbreak but it has been permitted to reopen to workers on Friday, after being idle for two weeks.

Flaherty said the region's medical officer of health will notify the plant if and when workers qualify for vaccines.

Sullivan said the company has put in place a number of safety measures at the facility, including temperature testing, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, use of face coverings and social distancing where possible. 

The union said it is happy with the measures Cargill is taking but insists workers need paid sick days and access to the vaccine.

Rob Nicholas, who represents Cargill workers through the UFCW, said he receives calls daily from union members worried a return to work will likely put them at risk of contracting the virus.

"I've heard people at the London facility are very very nervous about returning to work, nervous about 'Will they contract a disease?'" Nicholas said. 

A man walks into a Cargill meat processing factory in Chambly, Que., south of Montreal, Sunday, May 10, 2020. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

On Tuesday, Health Minister Christine Elliott suggested that a provincially-run paid sick leave program is being developed and will be released in the coming days. 

She says the province will make "additional enhancements" to the currently available federal program. It comes after the government denied unanimous consent for a motion from the Liberals to provided workers with 10 paid sick days right away.

"We have people who absolutely need paid sick days and yet this government wants to pass it off on the federal government and say it's somebody else's responsibility instead. That's just not fair to people who are living paycheck-to-paycheck, not fair to other people who want to remain safe inside the workplaces," Nicholas said. 

Workers are required to wear face shields and masks on the job and are separated by plastic or Plexiglas barriers.

"We think [Cargill] has done a good job at protecting employees. Is it perfect? No, it's a meat manufacturing facility where they produce chicken for the consumer and people work side-by-side," he said.

On-site vaccination clinic being considered

Cargill has put out a survey to its workers to gauge their interest in receiving the vaccine and a "high majority" of employees expressed interest, Nicholas said.

A Cargill plant in Alberta is hosting a vaccination clinic after a major outbreak broke out within its plant. Here in Ontario, the union said the province is telling companies to hire third parties to administer the vaccines. 

He worries that could lead to a "host of issues" if operated by the employer such as privacy concerns and liability.

"We had wanted Public Health to operate those clinics not the employer."

Employees were getting paid 36 hours per week while the plant was closed, in accordance to its agreement with the union. Throughout the pandemic, Cargill has provided up to 80 hours of additional paid time off for staff that needed to isolate as a result of COVID-19, Sullivan said. 

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