CALGARY — The Cargill meat-packing plant in southern Alberta announced Monday it is temporarily shutting down as the result of COVID-19.
The High River facility, which employs about 2,000 workers, has been linked to more than 350 cases of the novel coronavirus.
A company spokesman called it a difficult decision as the plant is considered an essential service.
“Considering the community-wide impacts of the virus, we encourage all employees to get tested for the COVID-19 virus as now advised by Alberta Health Services as soon as possible,” Jon Nash said in a statement.
Production is to stop once meat already in the plant is processed to avoid any food waste.
“We will process approximately three million meals currently in our facility as quickly as possible. We greatly appreciate our employees who are working to complete this effort,” Nash said.
It’s not clear how long the plant will be shut down or if workers will be paid while they’re off.
The plant, just north of the town of High River, processes about 4,500 head of cattle a day — more than one-third of Canada’s beef-packing capacity.
Cargill had earlier announced that its second shift of workers was being shut down. It also had said it was bringing in several new safety protocols, including temperature testing, enhanced cleaning and sanitizing, use of face coverings, screens between employee stations and a ban on visitors.
The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, which represents the Cargill employees, said the shutdown is better late than never. But the union still has many questions.
“We still have grave concerns about their transparency. What are they saying to their workers? Are the workers going to get paid? What does the future look like?” asked local president Thomas Hesse.
“It isn’t just about pausing the plant … creating economic anxiety among these vulnerable workers is another problem.”
The union had been calling on Cargill to shut the plant down for two weeks to allow workers to self-isolate and to give the plant a thorough cleaning.
Hesse said three-quarters of members expressed concern about their safety during a union conference call Sunday.
He said he personally knows that one long-term Cargill employee is “fighting for his life” in hospital. The worker is on a ventilator and in an induced coma, said Hesse.
He wants an independent third party to assess the plant.
An official with the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Alberta said the shutdown is overdue, since cases at Cargill were causing a cross-contamination of another essential service in the town of 12,000 people.
Lou Arab said five employees at Seasons Retirement Communities in High River have tested positive for COVID-19. Three of them are married to meat-packing workers.
“The plant needs to be shut down until they figure out what’s going on and until they know it has been made safe,” Arab said.
“It’s going beyond the plant and it’s going into the community.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 20, 2020
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Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press