Union says staff at 2nd Alberta meat plant scared of COVID-19, not showing up to work

JBS Canada beef processing plant in Brooks, Alberta closed due to COVID-19. Global News/Tom Reynolds

A union representing workers at a southern Alberta meat-packing plant says some staff don’t feel safe because of an outbreak of COVID-19 at the facility, and they aren’t showing up for work.

The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union 401 said JBS Canada has been paying a shift premium of $4 an hour for workers at its plant in Brooks. But it’s not enough.

“It didn’t get people to come into work. In fact, we hear that 500 to 1,000 workers haven’t shown up and they’ve had to reduce production to one shift,” Thomas Hesse said Tuesday.

“They cancelled the entire second shift and they’re merging the shifts simply because they don’t have the workers.

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The plant is the second in the area with an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Production at Cargill, just north of High River, was shut down Monday after an outbreak linked to 484 cases of the illness, including the death of a worker.

Click to play video: 'Cargill meat plant temporarily closing amid COVID-19 outbreak'
Cargill meat plant temporarily closing amid COVID-19 outbreak

The JBS plant in Brooks had recorded 67 cases as of Monday.

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JBS said it is trying to ensure the facility remains open and has been providing support for workers and their families infected with the virus.

“We will endeavour to keep our facilities open, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate,” Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA, said in an email.

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Bruett said the facility has implemented safety measures, including temperature testing for all members entering the plant, providing and requiring face masks and physical partitions on production lines.

He confirmed the plant has reduced its production to one shift per day because of increased absenteeism.

Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents federal meat inspectors, said seven of his workers at the Cargill plant have tested positive for COVID-19.

He said all meat-packing plants should shut down for 14 days to give workers time to self-isolate. They can then reopen.

Click to play video: 'JBS Canada confirms multiple cases of COVID-19 at meat packing plant in Brooks'
JBS Canada confirms multiple cases of COVID-19 at meat packing plant in Brooks

An Olymel plant in Quebec previously shut down, he said, adding that JBS should stop dragging its feet and follow suit.

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“Because you’ve probably got folks in there now that are asymptomatic and are carriers and they’re going to continue to spread the virus,” Murphy said.

Alberta’s chief medical health officer, in announcing the Cargill death Monday, said special teams have been tasked with helping contain the virus at Cargill and JBS.

Dr. Deena Hinshaw said the case numbers at the Brooks plant will likely get worse.

“We have seen some community spread there and recognize that Brooks has some similar challenges with households that have many people living in those households where there can be difficulty for people to stay away from others if they are sick,” she said.

“That’s something that the outbreak team that’s responding to the JBS plant and the Brooks community is looking at.”

Hesse said there should have been more decisive action by the companies and the Alberta government to make sure cases didn’t skyrocket at Cargill.

“Now we know of a worker that’s fighting for their life on a ventilator and a medically-induced coma in the hospital. And we’re aware of a woman who has tragically died, who we believe worked in the production area,” Hesse said.

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“This didn’t have to happen if the government and employer had acted quickly and acted appropriately.”

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