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High River Cargill shuts down operations temporarily

High River Cargill has announced it will close its doors temporarily due to a COVID-19 outbreak and the death of one of its employees from complications of the virus. (Wheel file photo)

High River Cargill has announced it will close its doors temporarily.

The news came on the heels of an announcement by Dr. Deena Hinshaw, chief medical officer of Alberta, that an employee of the plant died April 20 due to complications from COVID-19. There are 484 cases of the coronavirus linked to the plant as of April 20.

A statement released by Cargill Protein - North America lead Jon Nash on April 20 said effective immediately, measures are being taken to idle the plant.

"Considering the community-wide impacts of the virus, we encourage all employees to get tested for the COVID-19 virus as now advised by Alberta Health Services as soon as possible," Nash said. "This was a difficult decision for our team who are operating an essential service and are committed to delivering food for local families, access to markets for ranchers, products for our customers' shelves and jobs for local employees."

He said employees will be paid for up to 80 hours of work while the plant is closed and food waste will be curbed by processing the product currently in the facility as quickly as possible.

The announcement followed statements over the weekend that Cargill was taking appropriate measures to ensure health and safety of its employees.

Cargill had eliminated its second shift and has staggered shift and break start times for those still able to work. In addition, it was providing face masks for employees, enhancing its cleaning and sanitizing practices, prohibiting visitors, increasing physical distance between employees on the floor, and providing alternate transportation options for workers to eliminate the need to carpool.

After a teleconference town hall meeting with its employees on April 18, Nash released a statement outlining the company’s commitment to keeping facilities open while ensuring its staff and customers remain safe.

News of the closure came as a relief for Thomas Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Worker Local 401, who had been pushing for two weeks to have the plant closed to protect vulnerable employees.

"It's the right thing to do," he said.

However, he said there's a much larger issue at play.

The union held a teleconference town-hall meeting with almost 2,000 food processing members on April 19, including workers from High River Cargill and the JBS plant in Brooks. During the call, employees were asked poll questions and could answer by pressing a number on their phone and 75 per cent indicated they didn’t believe the government and company were doing enough to keep them safe; 85 per cent said there were days they felt afraid to go to work; and 75 per cent said they don’t feel they’re being adequately compensated for the risks they’re taking.

The numbers spoke volumes, said Hesse.

"One day they're reassuring everybody and two days later they're closing the place," he said. "If it wasn't okay to operate, what changed two days later? What's going on?"

He said going forward, there needs to be a serious look taken at safety within the plant, and it cannot be done by the Province.

The joint conference call with Dr. Hinshaw, the Minister of Agriculture Devin Dreeshen and Minister of Labour Jason Copping and Cargill to reassure employees is proof the government is in too tight with the company to be objective, he said.

"What they really need to do now is have some independent, out-of-province people come in to do an assessment of the safety of the plant so this doesn't happen again," said Hesse.

Krista Conrad,

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