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New measures added at High River, Alta., Cargill plant after workers raise coronavirus concerns

How the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting High River
High River Mayor Craig Snodrass joins Global News Morning Calgary live via Skype to discuss how the town of High River has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutting down of the Cargill meat-packing plant.

Workers at the Cargill meat processing plant in High River, Alta., raised concerns over coronavirus safety to company management and provincial health and government officials during a telephone town hall on Saturday.

Alberta Health Services said on Sunday that it couldn’t provide an updated number of cases of the virus directly linked to employees or contractors of the Cargill facility and connected households, however there were 358 cases, including households, as of Friday.

Officials on the call included Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen, Labour Minister Jason Copping, Calgary chief medical officer of health Dr. Jia Hu and Cargill North American Lead Jon Nash.

A source provided Global News with audio of the nearly two-hour conference call, in which employees can be heard raising concerns about safety at the plant and at home, compensation for employees self-isolating or in quarantine and the public perception of the Cargill plant, among other things.

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“Please know we are doing everything we can possibly do to keep our people safe while providing wholesome food to Canadians,” Nash said on the call. “The health and safety of our people is always the first priority.”

Nash said that all employees impacted by the coronavirus would receive the equivalent of 80 hours of pay from Cargill.

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According to Cargill, the company has implemented several health measures to limit the spread of the virus.

In a statement to Global News Sunday, the company said staff are getting their temperature checked when they arrive at the facility and that face masks will be handed out to all employees. Enhanced cleaning and sanitizing are also being added as well as staggered breaks and shift flexibility, according to the company.

Cargill also said visitors are prohibited at the facility, and there is increased distance between employees and screening between individual employee stations.

Both Cargill and Alberta Health Services are encouraging staff to limit carpooling, as household transmission and carpooling have been identified as concerns related to the outbreak.

Alberta Health Services is also offering voluntary coronavirus testing to all staff at the Cargill plant, whether or not they are showing symptoms of the virus.

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UFCW Local 401, the union representing employees at the Cargill plant, said there is still anxiety among workers at the plant following Saturday’s teleconference town hall.

Union officials said they hosted a call of their own on Sunday with nearly 2,000 of the union’s members.

“Over 75 per cent, first of all, said that they didn’t feel that their employer or the government were doing enough to keep them safe,” UFCW Local 401 labour relations senior director Thomas Hesse said. “Over 85 per cent said there are days when they are scared to go to work.”

READ MORE: 3 employees test positive for COVID-19 — Calgary Midtown Co-op

According to Copping, the labour minister, an occupational health and safety officer conducted an inspection of the plant and found that Cargill took reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety and welfare of its employees at the facility.

Meanwhile, the province said it has implemented new protocols in the event of a confirmed coronavirus case in a provincially or federally licensed food-processing facility.

The protocols include pre-emptive mitigation measures to prevent the spread of infection, notification of positive tests and contact tracing, risk assessments and business resumption.

However, the opposition NDP is calling for the plant to be shut down for two weeks to ensure it is safe for work.

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“They should be shutting the plant down, taking stock of what’s going on, paying the workers in the meantime and creating a plan that safely allows workers to go back to work keeping in mind all the social-distancing measures,” NDP agriculture and forestry critic Lorne Dach said.

According to officials with Cargill, the company would not open the plant if it was not safe to do so.

“We absolutely will not operate the facility if we can’t do it safely or if we cannot meet the food safety quality standards that we have in place,” Nash said. “We will never sacrifice the well-being of our people to do that.”