By Emily Leedham
Workers reveal fear, frustration, and doubt in Cargill’s ability to manage the COVID-19 outbreak at the High River meatpacking plant in a recent Telephone Town Hall.
RankandFile.ca obtained an automated transcript of a Telephone Town Hall between members of Cargill plant management, the Alberta Government, Alberta Health Services, and Cargill plant workers regarding the plant’s recent COVID-19 outbreak.
Competing Town Halls
After 38 cases were confirmed at the plant on April 12, UFCW 401 President Thomas Hesse sent a letter to Cargill demanding the plant be shut down and every worker sent home for a 14 days of paid self-isolation. UFCW 401 represents the Cargill workers in High River and thousands of other workers in Alberta’s meatpacking plants, grocery stores and other retail and services.
“Cargill wrote back to me and said, ‘You’re being unreasonable and inflammatory.’ They kind of stopped talking to us,” Hesse told RankandFile.ca.
UFCW then put a neon sign outside the Cargill plant inviting workers to participate in a telephone town hall Sunday, April 19, at 2:00 PM. Hesse said Cargill tried to get the sign taken away.
Cargill then scheduled their own telephone town hall on Saturday, April 18, 2020 at 2:30 PM – one day before the union’s. No representative from UFCW 401 was invited to participate.
UFCW 401 reported 4,000 members attended their Telephone Town Hall the following day, which included members from across Alberta, not only Cargill. The union answered questions and promoted its 24/7 support line for workers: 1-888-464-6466 .
UFCW members also participated in survey polls. According to the union, 82% of townhall participants were not aware of their legal rights during COVID-19 before the call. A majority, 86%, also felt they were not getting adequate pay for the risks they took coming to work, and 56% said they did not feel their employers were doing everything they could to protect them. And 99% felt the union should continue to fight for financial and safety supports for workers from the government.
On Monday, April 20, Cargill announced it would shut down the plant temporarily after a worker died and 484 confirmed cases were linked to the plant and the extended community.
Transcript: government and company officials speak first
Cargill’s April 18 town hall began with speakers from government, Cargill and Alberta Health Services and was followed by a Q&A with workers. The transcript was automated meaning some words and phrases are missing or distorted. Quotes are presented as they are read in the transcript, with only minor edits for clarity. You can read the full transcript here.
Speakers at Cargill’s April 18 Telephone Town Hall:
Devin Dreeshen, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry
Dr. Jason Copping, Minister of Labour and Immigration
Andre Tremblay, Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Forestry
John Nash, Cargill’s North American Lead
Andrea [last name not provided], Cargill
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Chief Medical Officer, Alberta
Dr. Brent Friesen, Alberta Health Services
Dr. Hiu, Alberta Health Services
Minister Dreeshen opens saying the purpose of the town hall is to provide information about what is being done to manage the COVID-19 pandemic within the Cargill, plant and high river and allow workers to ask questions about working conditions.
Dresheen also says a Business Resumption Protocol was developed over three weeks ago “to further protect the health and safety of employees and the public by minimizing disruptions in the food supply and insurance operations can safely resumed as quickly as possible.”
Minister Copping says he received a letter regarding worker safety conditions at the plant last week and treated it as a formal complaint. He said that an Occupational Health & Safety officer conducted an inspection of the plant and found that “the employer is taking the reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety and welfare of employees at the site as well as those in the vicinity.”
Dr. Hinshaw states “Alberta Health Services has put together a dedicated outbreak response team to address the so break and try to prevent further infections at any locations where transmission is occurring.”
Dr. Friesen and Dr. Hiu are leads on this outbreak response team.
Hinshaw clarifies her statement from Friday, saying 358 COVID-19 cases cannot all be directly linked to Cargill, as community transmission is an issue. She said the team is working on determining what number of cases can be directly linked to Cargill out of the larger 358 number.
Carpooling to and from work is a factor in transmission. Some Cargill workers share homes with long term care workers who work at different sites where there have been outbreaks.
Dr. Friesen says he believes the risk of transmission in the plant is low.
John Nash, Cargill’s North American Lead, says safety is their number one priority, and that they have a good relationship with the union. He says as soon as the plant is deemed not safe to work, it will close. The transcript reads:
“I think that I want to make sure that you know and is that we absolutely will not operate the facility if we cannot do it safely or if we cannot meet the food safety quality standards that we have in place uh we will never sacrifice the well being of our people uh to do that.”
Throughout the transcript, there was no discussion about what measures are being taken to mitigate the COVID-19 spread in long-term care facilities, despite the obvious COVID-19 spread at Cargill. Writer Nora Loreto has been tracking COVID-19 deaths and has “linked 903 of the deaths to LTC, retirement, long-term adult care and the Mission jail.” You can read her spreadsheet here.
Transcript: Q&A with workers
Workers asked a variety of questions about health and safety measures and financial supports. All the questions appeared to be in English, and there is no indication translation services were used.
One worker says Human Resources has been unresponsive to workers, to which Cargill’s John Nash replies:
“Sure Thank you uh I’m I’m I’m really sorry to hear that you’re having trouble uh getting in touch But I know our human resources team is working really really hard to handle all the the uh um the calls that have been coming in Um and I do believe that uh we’re trying to return all our calls within 24 hours Uh at this point um we absolutely want employees like you did meet these safe and And please um continue to work through human resources and your supervisor if possible Um because we definitely want you to have that access and be able to answer your questions So certainly I will follow up on it”
Another worker says Cargill doesn’t have enough masks and wonders if the government will provide them. Nash answers:
“Obviously masks are incredibly important uh and helping to stop he spread And we do have [masks] for all of our people uh in the plant so that we absolutely do have plenty of masks And and I and as we know mass have been hard to come by…There have been hard to find but with the help of the government of their in Canada we we have had them now and we anticipate being able to have them uh going forward…”
One worker asks what kind of screening Cargill should provide and whether Alberta Health & Safety can provide any enforcement:
Dr. Hinshaw says screening should include a questionnaire about symptoms and temperature check, but does not elaborate on AH&S enforcement measures.
Another worker asks: “is it a standard practice for nurses from Cargill to call the employees… while they are away from work sick and ask them to come to work Well they are sick Um this is a pretty dangerous practice and from again from my experiences has happened numerous times”
“The reason our our nurses call um I’m going to be really clear about this is because we care about you Uh we do wellness checks We’re following up to make sure that you’re doing okay or and and checking to see if there’s anything additional that we can do for you…
“the most important thing Please do not come to work If you are sick whether with this or anything else we want you to be okay We want you to be healthy Um the first and foremost uh please do not come to work if you were sick and again our nurses as standard protocol do check on our people because we absolutely care about you”
Another worker asks: “Hi I just wanted to know um there are a bunch of people [at the plant] but um that got [COVID-19] And you know some people we’ve heard are a lot sicker Um have become a lot sicker I see [Cargill’s] only offering 80 hours of pay But if this carries on it say I get sick and I’m hospitalized Um is there WCB coverage that that the government is willing to extend and approved for this type of situation or we get infections and we all have to stay home longer than two weeks because I don’t think like 80 hours is going to cut it for us “
Minister Copping says WCB applies “if it is determined that the individual got it from the uh from the workplace then benefits apply in those cases.”
Nash answers, “Sure I think I paid leave or something that we offer That’s really important as well So um we’ll continue working with our government partners to make sure that we’re offering everything that we can possibly offer Um since you’re anyone that’s sick is taken care of”
“I’m just wondering given the amount of cases that are confirmed at the plant right now Ah what number do we have to reach for [Cargill] to consider the unions recommendation for shutting down for two weeks “
“there is not a number that we are uh working towards We’re trying to understand Understand Uh we we are The most important thing is that that the community and our employees need to know that as soon as we cannot run safely uh or with the food safety processes that we need in place we will not run And we will always work with a h s and [OHS] and and others to make sure that we are doing everything we can possibly do So if there’s ever a point where we cannot ah operate safely and we will not do so”
“Despite measures being taken workers are still testing positive And this has an effect on our whole on all of our families What more is [Cargill’s] doing to stop the virus spreading”
Dr. Hinshaw responds: “with respect to this particular outbreak um I mentioned earlier the fact that there seem to be this connection between some of the long term [care outbreaks] Uh and some of the workers in those outbreaks who got unfortunately got sick and then brought it home to their household And then within those households there were some people who works at the plants“