Cattle producers welcomed yesterday’s news that Cargill’s beef processing plant in High River, Alta., plans to reopen May 4, two weeks after a hiatus caused by widespread worker illnesses with COVID-19.
The initial slowdown and then halt of plant operations, coupled with a slowdown at the JBS processing plant in Brooks, Alta., has led to a backlog of fat cattle waiting for slaughter.
As of April 30, 908 Cargill workers had tested positive for the virus and one has died. Alberta Health Services and Occupation Health and Safety officials have done on-site inspections of the plant, where measures were taken to disinfect, sanitize and establish better separation for employees.
Cargill said the plant will re-open with one shift and will not initially be processing its usual 4,000 head of cattle daily. An insufficient number of available workers is likely to limit production.
“All employees who are eligible to return to work in our harvest department are asked to report to work,” Cargill said in a news release.
“In keeping with our extensive focus on safety, we want to emphasize that employees are required to have had no symptoms of illness and not had contact with anyone with the COVID-19 virus for 14 days. Further, all social distancing and infection prevention and control measures, including employee screening, masking and changes to locker room and lunch room workflows, are continuing in the facility.”
Food processing workers have been deemed essential under pandemic protocols. Cargill said it will show its appreciation to workers by continuing to provide 80 hours of paid leave to those requiring time off to deal with illness, and providing a weekly guarantee of 36 hours for the week of April 27.
Jon Nash, North American protein lead for Cargill, said the company realizes the challenges faced by its workers.
“We have been working in lockstep with AHS since early March to lead on the implementation of proactive safety measures within the facility,” said Nash.
“Over the last 14 days, we have taken several additional actions to manage COVID-19 and make our facility an even safer place for our employees to work. We’ve been in regular communication with the union, AHS and OHS and have welcomed them for site visits, which served to validate the enhanced safety measures in our facility.”
Cargill’s plans to reopen were greeted with dismay by Alberta’s NDP.
Labour critic Christina Gray said yesterday that the plant should remain closed for the safety of its workers. She said the JBS beef processing plant in Brooks, Alta., should also close because 333 workers have tested positive for the coronavirus in that facility, and Brooks community members are petitioning for the plant’s closure.
“Today’s revelation that Cargill will reopen is proof that these companies and the UCP government still refuse to take worker safety seriously. They value the companies and their profits over the people,” said Gray.
She suggested Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was taking cues from U.S. President Donald Trump, who issued an order earlier this week to keep meat processing plants open.