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Union leader asks Cargill for 14-day shutdown to protect workers

38 employees at the beef processing plant have been diagnosed with COVID-19
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Covid-19

OKOTOKS — A union leader representing Cargill Meat Solutions employees has asked the general manager at the High River-area plant to close the facility for 14 days after 38 employees tested positive for COVID-19.

Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Union Local 401, said it has been informed by Cargill that 38 employees at the plant have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

“So we said to Cargill: ‘Hey, let’s hit the pause button, let’s protect this community, let’s protect this workplace, let’s give 14 days for people to isolate," Hesse said in an interview on April 13. 

Hesse requested the 14-day paid stoppage in a letter sent to Cargill Meat Solutions general manager Dale LaGrange dated Easter Sunday.

Hesse said in an interview the work at Cargill makes it difficult to do the recommended self-distancing to prevent COVID-19.

“If you go down to the park and try and climb on the monkey bars, you’ll see tape around the monkey bars and they can arrest you and give you a $1,000 fine,” Hesse said. “Yet (you have) 2,000 people wandering into this plant and then wandering out into the community and there is no clear regulatory scheme or set of rules that are enforceable – unlike the monkey bars.”

A press statement from Cargill confirmed there were positive tests among employees at the High River plant, however it said due to legal issues it could not provide further details.

Cargill has stopped a second eight-hour shift at the plant.

“As we continue to prioritize the health and safety of Cargill employees, we have decided to temporarily idle our second shift operation at our High River protein plant,” said Jon Nash, Cargill Protein, national lead from Wichita, Kan. in a prepared statement.

“This will allow us to minimize the impact of COVID-19 and continue to follow health department guidelines. This was a difficult decision for our team, but our values are guiding our actions.

"We want our employees and the community to know we care. We’ve taken extra steps to focus on safety and remain operational – including temporary wage increases and bonuses.”

Nash added Cargill implemented additional safety measures like temperature testing, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, prohibiting visitors, adopting social distancing practices where possible and offering staggered breaks and shift flexibility.

Hesse said that isn’t good enough.

“We’re considering some legal action, but I don’t want to engage in legal action,” Hesse said. “We’re still asking them to close the plant – we would like to give them an opportunity to reconsider… I am hoping their final decision is something better than what they have told us thus far.”

He added nerves are raw at Cargill at this time.

Hesse stressed the workers have not threatened any kind of work-stoppage action.

“We are not doing anything unlawful, inappropriate or counter to the collective agreement,” Hesse said. “We’ve given our members no counsel or advice or encouragement to do anything.

“All we have said to them is: ‘We’ll talk to your employer.’”

He added that even with the dropping of the second shift, he estimates there are 1,000 workers still working in a workplace which has had more than 30 diagnoses for COVID-19.

Hesse said that using the provincial government's projection of a potential 800,000 cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, that would project to hundreds of people potentially getting COVID-19 at the plant. 

In the Easter Sunday letter, Hesse also requested a meeting between union officials, experts and government officials to design clear and enforceable rules around health and safety at the workplace.

Hesse said he is not a doctor and from what he has read there is no connection between the consumption of food and getting COVID-19.

“But no consumer wants someone to suffer from a horrible illness or heaven forbid die in order to eat Cargill beef,” he said.

Nash said in the prepared statement: “Every person affected is a valued member of our team. Our employees are working hard to keep food on tables in local communities. While this location is working at reduced capacity and we adapt to operating during a pandemic, our work doesn’t stop.

Cargill provides an essential service to the world — providing the ingredients, feed and food that nourishes people and animals. We are working with farmers and ranchers, our customers and our employees to supply food in this time of crisis and keep markets moving.”

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Bruce Campbell

About the Author: Bruce Campbell

Bruce Campbell is the editor for Okotokstoday.ca and the Western Wheel newspaper. He is a graduate of Mount Royal College journalism program, 1991. For story tips contact bcampbell@okotoks.greatwest.ca
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