HIGH RIVER, Alta. — A moment of silence to honour a worker who died of COVID-19 was held at a southern Alberta meat-packer Wednesday as news broke that the father of another plant employee had also died of the illness.
A Cargill employee’s father, who was visiting from the Philippines, died after contracting the novel coronavirus and being admitted to hospital, said the union that represents workers at the slaughterhouse near High River.
“We join with the community that is supporting the worker right now in expressing our condolences, but we also wish to respect his space as he grieves this terrible loss,” said Michael Hughes, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401.
Cargill issued a statement: “We know COVID-19 has deeply impacted our community and our plant. Our deepest condolences go out to the family.”
The silent memorial was for Hiep Bui, 67, who had worked at the plant for 23 years picking out beef bones from hamburger meat.
She is believed to be the only worker infected at the plant to die from COVID-19, although 946 cases have been recorded there, as of Wednesday. The plant employees 2,000 people.
It was shut down April 20 as the contagion spread, but reopened Monday.
The union said most employees seem to be going back to work but only because they need the money.
“People are under pressure,” said Hughes. “We think it’s driving a lot of people’s decisions that they need to get paid.”
Hughes said the union has heard from some workers unwilling to go back.
“We’ve received messages from people who said, ‘I don’t have any symptoms and I tested negative, but I’m not going in because I’m afraid for my five-month-old baby and my elderly mother who lives with me,’” he said.
“There are people who have notified us that they’re making that decision out of fear.”
At another meat plant with an outbreak, JBS in Brooks, Alta., absenteeism continues to rise, Hughes added.
COVID-19 has affected 566 of about 2,400 workers there and been linked to the death of one employee. The company is running one shift a day largely due to a shortage of workers.
“We have … proactively identified and adopted more than 100 preventive measures at our Brooks facility to ensure a safe working environment for our team members,” said JBS Canada spokesman Rob Meijer.
“We continue to carefully monitor COVID-19 testing and our risk mitigation on a daily basis, and we will make any future decisions based on the best available data and advice from both our team members and public health officials.”
A third outbreak has been reported at Harmony Beef just north of Calgary, which has 38 cases of COVID-19.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, said Wednesday that the outbreaks are being watching by Alberta Health Services and Occupational Health and Safety.
She said that since the outbreaks were declared, there have been three inspections at Cargill, four at JBS and two at Harmony.
While Occupational Health and Safety is conducting investigations, she said measures are in place at the plants that meet the requirements of public health orders.
“All meat processing facilities in Alberta with outbreaks underway have implemented safety controls that meet requirements identified by AHS, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, Occupational Health and Safety legislation.”
In Edmonton, Premier Jason Kenney dismissed a call from the Opposition for a public inquiry into the Cargill outbreak.
“The failures at Cargill are too many to count,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley during question period.
“(There were) workers who tested positive … ordered to come back to work, workers promised extra pay if they didn’t call in sick or had their jobs threatened if they did, (and) managers wearing face masks while staff were given nothing.
Kenney suggested that what’s outrageous is ”the NDP’s predictable desire to politicize these deaths … and the broader crisis facing this province.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 6, 2020
— By Bill Graveland in Calgary. With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton
— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter
The Canadian Press