Staff at Alberta meat plant stay away over virus fears

Scared to show up for work

The union representing workers at a southern Alberta meat-packing plant says some employees don't feel safe because of an outbreak of COVID-19 and they aren't showing up for work.

The president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 says JBS Canada has been paying a shift premium of $4 an hour to workers at its plant in Brooks — but it's not enough.

"It didn't get people to come into work. In fact, we hear that 500 to 1,000 workers haven't shown up and they've had to reduce production to one shift," Thomas Hesse said Tuesday.

"They cancelled the entire second shift and they're merging the shifts simply because they don't have the workers.

"The $4 is not enticing people to come into a place they believe to be unsafe."

The plant is the second in the area with an outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Cargill announced Monday it would be temporarily shutting down its plant just north of High River. On Tuesday, the outbreak stood at 401 cases, including the death of a worker. Another 114 cases in the community are being linked to the meat-packer.

The JBS plant in Brooks had recorded 77 cases as of Tuesday.

JBS said it is trying to ensure its plant remains open and has been providing support for workers and their families infected with the virus.

"We will endeavour to keep our facilities open, but we will not operate a facility if we do not believe it is safe or if absenteeism levels result in our inability to safely operate," Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for JBS USA, said in an email.

Bruett said the facility has brought in safety measures, including temperature testing for all workers entering the plant, providing and requiring face masks and physical partitioning on production lines.

He confirmed the plant has reduced its production to one shift per day because of increased absenteeism.

Fabian Murphy, president of the Agriculture Union, which represents federal meat inspectors, said seven inspectors at the Cargill plant have tested positive for COVID-19.

He said if cases of coronavirus are found, then all meat-packing plants should shut down for 14 days to give workers time to self-isolate. The plants can then reopen.

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