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Writing the handbook on COVID-19

Packing plant managers, workers and union reps all found themselves responding to a crisis unlike any they’d faced before.

When Cargill has an issue, employees like to figure out a solution and share it so everyone can continue to work on, says a company executive. The coronavirus has challenged that process.

“We don’t have a handbook for this,” said John Keating, Cargill’s North American managing director of business operations and supply chain for protein.

“It hit, it hit fast and we were learning as fast as we possibly could. And so there will be lessons learned, no question about it.”

Keating said they have followed guidelines from health authorities, and have worked with Alberta Health Services, as well as Occupational Health and Safety. But even so, having to write the handbook in the midst of the crisis has come at a cost.

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The numbers of infected workers escalated dramatically over the Easter weekend at Cargill’s High River plant. Ultimately, around half of the plant’s approximately 2,000 employees have been infected with the coronavirus, along with several Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) inspectors. Most have recovered, but Benito Quesada and Hiep Bui, both plant workers, have died. So has Armando Sallegue, whose son works at the High River plant.

Cargill was far from the only company to see COVID-19 spread through its employees. Many poultry and meat plants across North America have struggled. In nearby Brooks, the JBS plant saw about 650 of its workers infected. Like Cargill, most of JBS’s infected workers have recovered, but one employee, whose name hasn’t been made public, died of the disease, as did a household contact of a plant employee.

Both plants have implemented protocols within their facilities and around carpooling that seem to be curtailing the infections. Rob Meijer, spokesperson for JBS, noted in an email that they’ve adopted over 100 preventative measures at the JBS plant in Brooks and are monitoring those measures every day.

COVID-19 also disrupted operations at both plants, with Cargill shutting its lines for two weeks starting April 20 and JBS temporarily slowing from two shifts to one.  With the Brooks and High River plants accounting for about 75 per cent of Canada’s beef slaughter capacity, those slow-downs have created a backlog of cattle in feedlots estimated to have peaked at 130,000 cattle in May.

The backlog exists south of the border as well. Cattle Buyers Weekly reports that even if U.S. packers reach over 90 per cent of normal production by the first week of July, the backlog of market-ready cattle will stretch into September.

Socio-economic issues

One thing that has become clear is that the coronavirus hasn’t hit every community with the same intensity.

Keating said that while the challenges and protocols around COVID-19 are the same within each plant, the numbers vary between communities. In May, some Cargill plants still had zero cases, or were just getting their first positives, Keating said. Meanwhile the High River area “got really hot, really quick” compared to some other communities, he said.

For some reason, the Calgary area, which includes High River, has had many more infections than Edmonton since the novel coronavirus arrived. Calgary’s busy international airport, higher testing rates and clusters of cases were possible factors early on in the disease’s spread, Global News reported.

It’s also become clear that safety measures have to extend beyond the workplace to slow the disease.

Meijer said that the company has an outreach support program, which predates the crisis, to help with anything from health and nutrition issues to applying for financial assistance.

Meanwhile, community groups in Brooks and High River have been trying to help those who need to self-isolate and to raise public awareness around COVID-19 protocols while fighting scapegoating.

But it seems problems linger. Michael Hughes is a staff rep with Local 401 of United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents plant workers. Hughes said the union was still hearing from members in Brooks who were sleeping in their cars to avoid spreading the disease to others in their households in May. While support such as hotel rooms might be available, workers may not be hearing about them, he added.

Hughes said part of the discussion has been about communities, and the risk of workers spreading the disease to their families.

“These are socio-economic issues. And if we don’t understand the people who work in these plants as human beings and only consider them as inputs on a production line, then of course the solutions that we’re going to have are going to be like okay, we’ll put up a barrier, we’ll do this, we’ll give them PPE and then call it a day,” said Hughes. “But the reality is that we need to consider the fact that folks are human beings and they have second jobs.”

This is the first in a series of articles. For more information see:

About the author

Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is the editor of Canadian Cattlemen. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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