After a two-week shutdown, Cargill plans Monday to partly reopen an Alberta beef-processing plant where 45% of the workforce was diagnosed with COVID-19, one of the largest workplace outbreaks in North America.
But the union representing 2,000 of the plant’s workers opposes the move and has tried to persuade the Alberta government to extend the closure — unsuccessfully, it appears.
Reopening the Canadian plant “recklessly endangers [workers’] lives and puts the interests of their bosses first,” United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401 said in a statement Friday.
“Food workers are afraid to go to work in the current environment,” said the union, which has been critical of Cargill’s coronavirus safety measures at the plant. “They are terrified of bringing this illness to their families and communities.”
Minnetonka-based Cargill, which has had COVID-19 cases at several U.S. meat-processing plants, said in a statement Friday that it has “been working hand in hand” with Alberta health and occupational safety regulators to reopen the plant.
“They have visited the facility and believe we have taken the appropriate actions as noted in their public comments,” the statement said. “We have been clear since the beginning of this pandemic that we will not operate if we can’t do so safely or meet our high food quality standards.”
The plant is in High River, about 40 miles south of Calgary, and is critical to Canada’s meat supply, accounting for nearly 40% of the country’s beef production.
Beef- and pork-processing plants across the continent have had COVID-19 outbreaks, including in Minnesota where the big JBS hog-slaughtering complex in Worthington has been idled since April 20.
On that same day, Cargill closed its beef plant after several hundred workers had tested positive for COVID-19.
Now, the plant is the center of Canada’s largest COVID-19 outbreak, which is possibly the biggest at any North American meat plant.
To date, 908 workers at the High River plant have been diagnosed with the virus; 631 have recovered and one has died, according to Alberta Health Services.
Another 477 COVID-19 cases are linked to the Cargill plant, meaning it accounts for 26% of Alberta’s total infections, the department said.
Alberta Occupational Safety and Health is investigating the outbreak, including any noncompliance with provincial worker-safety regulations, according to a Thursday posting on its website.
UFCW Local 401 Thursday asked Alberta OSHA for a “stop-work order” at the Cargill plant. However, the agency’s website said it plans to have officials on site when the plant reopens Monday, after conducting on-site inspections this week.
The union also Friday filed an unfair labor practices complaint with Canada’s Labour Relations Board against both Cargill and the government of Alberta over their handling of the outbreak. Cargill said in response that it is engaging in good faith with the union.
UFCW Local 401 and Cargill have battled the past few weeks over safety precautions at the plant, with the union saying the company has fallen well short. Cargill has denied that, and said it’s added a raft of new protections for Monday’s reopening.
On April 12, Local 401 called for the plant to close for two weeks, saying in a letter to top Alberta government officials and Cargill executives that it was “very bothered and deeply troubled” about the High River plant.
The next day, Cargill wrote back to the union, saying the open letter was “highly inflammatory.” Cargill also told workers that day it was temporarily cutting one of two production shifts due to increasing impact of COVID-19, including on employee attendance.
Cargill also idled a beef-processing in Hazleton, Pa., on April 7 after 164 workers there were diagnosed with COVID-19. The plant reopened on April 20 and is currently running at around 75 to 80% capacity, Cargill said.