Editor’s note: This article was updated at 5:26 p.m. ET on May 7, 2020 with a statement from Maple Lodge Farms.
A worker has died and more than two dozen people are sick amid an outbreak of COVID-19 at the Maple Lodge Farms poultry processing plant in Brampton, Ont., one of the largest chicken slaughterhouses in Canada.
Both the company and its union confirmed that an employee died this week after becoming infected with the virus.
“On behalf of the members and staff at the Union, I offer my sincere condolences to the family of the member who passed away,” said Shawn Haggerty, President of UFCW Local 175, in a statement. “Our thoughts are with the family at this difficult time, as well as with the other members at the plant who are also dealing with their own COVID-19 diagnoses.”
The company and the union also confirmed that 25 employees at the plant had COVID-19.
In a statement posted on Thursday afternoon, the company expressed “deep sadness” about the “devastating news” that one of its employees with COVID-19 had passed away. It also said it was in touch with the family to offer condolences and that it was “dedicated to providing the support and reassurance” to help its employees cope with the tragedy.
Maple Lodge also said in its statement that, like other companies, it continued to be “significantly challenged by the ever-evolving COVID-19 crisis. It added that it had contacted local public health officials immediately after each COVID-19 case was identified.
The Maple Lodge plant is the latest meatpacking plant in North America to be struck by an outbreak of the new coronavirus.
Global News first reported on Wednesday the chicken processing company waited nearly three weeks before publicly disclosing the first positive case.
A letter to employees dated April 16, and obtained by Global News, indicated the company became aware on April 15 that an employee had tested positive for the virus.
“The employee’s last day worked was April 6,” the letter said. “In accordance with Maple Lodge Farm’s COVID-19 protocols they have been out of the workplace and in self-isolation since learning on that date, that their spouse had tested positive for the virus.”
“The employee at that time had no symptoms.”
The company publicly acknowledged the “first positive cases” in an earlier statement posted on May 4. This was 20 days after they became aware of the first case.
The poultry processing company said it has taken steps to deal with the outbreak including a mandatory requirement for employees to wear masks, staggered shifts to improve physical distancing and “frequent deep cleaning initiatives.”
“Peel Public Health provides directions to MLF as to what actions must be taken, which we have followed very closely, in addition to implementing any extra precautionary measures we deem necessary,” the statement continued.
Concerned family members of workers at the Brampton plant say they are upset the company waited nearly three weeks before publicly disclosing the positive cases. Global News has agreed not to identify the family members over fears of workplace reprisal.
The spouse of one employee who is currently in isolation with a severe cough after being tested for COVID-19 said they are upset the company isn’t taking enough steps to protect workers.
“The way they are doing it is wrong,” said the spouse. “Why aren’t they shutting down? Do a deep clean, have everyone isolate for two weeks and then return.”
“I don’t think Maple Lodge employees are their main priority,” they told Global News. “They are looking for profit over people’s health.”
When asked why it hadn’t informed the public about the situation earlier, Carol Gardin, director of corporate affairs for Maple Lodge, told Global News in an email that the company was committed to communicating first and foremost with its employees and public health officials.
“At this time, we are in the midst of communicating sensitive information to our employees, who remain our number one priority,” Gardin wrote.
Meanwhile, the union said it has been in regular contact with the company, which has led to improved safety protocols including increased protective equipment, social distancing for workers and enhanced cleaning.