How did the numbers connected to the Cargill meat plant outbreak increase so drastically over a period of days?
That’s the obvious question posed after Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, announced Friday an 842 per cent increase in COVID-19 cases associated with the plant.
Cargill previously told CBC News that it would temporarily reduce shifts, test temperatures and implement enhanced cleaning and sanitizing. It also said it would adopt physical distancing practices where possible.
But some employees of Cargill told CBC News they are now frightened to come to work, citing “elbow-to-elbow” working conditions and fears of transmission in a facility they say is simply too crowded, even with reduced personnel, to make physical distancing possible.
Previously, there were only 38 known cases associated with the Cargill outbreak. On Friday, Hinshaw said there are now 358 cases identified in households connected to Cargill — a figure that represents 15 per cent of all cases in Alberta, and more than the entire province of Saskatchewan.
During a telephone town hall held Saturday between Cargill workers and provincial health representatives, Dr. Jia Hu, medical officer of health for Calgary, said around 200 of those cases are directly connected to Cargill contractors and workers.
Hinshaw said the remaining 158 involve households that had “multiple different exposures,” including in long-term care facilities with outbreaks of COVID-19.
This story is based on interviews with eight current Cargill employees. CBC News has changed the names of employees referenced in this story, as they fear negative impacts to their employment should they be identified.
Much of Cargill’s staff — the plant employs roughly 2,000 workers — is made up of members of the Filipino community. Employees interviewed estimated around 60 to 80 per cent of the workforce is Filipino.
Minnesota-based Cargill has a large presence in the Phillipines, investing $235 million in that country in 2018.
Joshua operated a butcher stall in a market in the Phillipines before he applied for a position in High River.
“My job in the Phillipines was too easy, because I had to work in my stall. But in Cargill, it’s much harder. Everybody’s too close and standing,” he said.
That became a problem, Joshua said, when COVID-19 cases started to emerge at the facility. He developed a headache, fever and body pain on April 7.
More workers soon began to experience symptoms. Kenneth experienced dizziness and headache, and soon he and his young son both tested positive for COVID-19.
In a letter addressed to High River Mayor Craig Snodgrass and sent to media on April 12 — a day before there were 38 cases confirmed by the union — more than 250 Filipino residents of the community called for the plant to be closed for at least two weeks.
“We the workers and our families are worried and scared for the possibility that we might bring the virus with us at home,” the letter reads.
The next day, the union that represents some workers at the plant also called for the facility to be closed while a plan could be formulated.
But classified as an essential service as part of the food supply chain, the facility remained open. Workers say they worry the conditions within could have expedited the spread of the virus.
Last Tuesday, Cargill temporarily laid off 1,000 staff, according to the union that represents them.
Though Cargill disputes the layoffs, the company did confirm it had temporarily reduced shifts by removing a second shift in order to “minimize the impact of COVID-19.” It also said it would implement physical distancing, where possible.
“I’m not so sure how many workers are there currently,” said Kenneth, who is now in self-isolation. “But when I was working, the number of workers in my line, we were in full force. Elbow to elbow.”
Cargill also began to stagger break times and installed dividers in the cafeteria. Some workers disputed that physical distance was even observed in those circumstances.
“If you’re going to the locker room to change, it’s the same thing. Our lockers are also elbow-to-elbow,” said Angelo, who lives in a home with three other families and is currently in isolation. “The [facility] is just built like that. We cannot rebuild it to have it two metres apart.”
When I was working, the number of workers in my line, we were in full force. Elbow-to-elbow.– Kenneth, Cargill employee
On Saturday’s town hall call, Hinshaw said employees carpooling to work was an area of concern for health officials.
Feeling pressured to work after testing positive
While Cargill allowed workers to go home to quarantine should they experience symptoms, some said they felt like they were pressured to come back to work too soon.
“I was told on April 12 by Alberta Health Services that I was positive and needed to quarantine another 14 days,” Christian said. “Cargill called me [three days later] and asked if I could come back to work tomorrow.
“How can I go back to work, I asked, if my result is positive? They said, even if you are positive, if there’s no symptoms you can go back to work.”
Angelo said his manager called him and asked why he needed to be isolated. He says he told his manager, if you want to confirm it, call AHS. His manager agreed.
Cargill also began offering bonuses during the COVID-19 outbreak, workers said. They worried that by missing work, they would miss out on the bonus.
“Honestly speaking, they don’t care about their employees,” Christian said. “They’re saying they can replace people at anytime. They don’t care.”
Company committed to staying open
CBC News submitted a list of questions regarding workers’ concerns surrounding physical distancing and pressure to come into work to Cargill, who did not respond to the individual complaints.
Spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said because the company has been deemed an essential service, Cargill is committed to keeping production facilities open.
“Our priority is the safety of our employees and limiting the spread of the virus where we can. We are working with local health officials to ensure appropriate prevention, testing, cleaning and quarantine protocols are followed,” he said in an email to CBC News. “We also continue to enforce a mandatory 14-day quarantine for any team member tests positive for COVID-19 as well as any employees who they have come in close contact with.”
Watch: Prior to 358 cases being announced as being linked to families with connections to Cargill’s High River plant, a Cargill spokesperson said Canadians should not be worried about the country’s beef supply.
Other employees, like William, say they feel Cargill did everything they could given how contagious the COVID-19 virus is.
“There were different bulletin boards, there were always announcements of what was happening, they changed start times,” William said. “People just didn’t care about the social distancing rules.”
Beef production in Canada
Part and parcel to any decision to shut a plant like Cargill down is the impact it would have on North America’s beef industry.
Cargill’s High River plant, along with the JBS plant in Brooks and the Harmony Beef plant in Balzac — both of which also have confirmed cases of COVID-19 — represent approximately three-quarters of beef suppliers in Canada.
According to Dennis Laycraft, executive vice-president of the Canadian Cattleman’s Association, Cargill normally processes nearly 4,000 animals per day at this time of year.
Any decision to shut down would have a significant impact on Canadian producers, especially given the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has already seen beef prices drop by close to 30 per cent.
“The longer the plant is closed, the more animals that were scheduled to come to market are being held back. We’re also seeing plants slowed down or shut down in the United States,” Laycraft said. “The first impact is really back on producers.”
Calls to close
Though some, including Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, have called for government to temporarily close down the plant and compensate workers, the province has so far resisted those calls. Alberta’s minister of agriculture and forestry Devin Dreeshan said on Saturday that he is confident the plant is safe.
“They’ve certainly got the confidence of Alberta Health Services that they’ve got the strongest mitigation and prevention measures in place that can be,” Laycraft said. “So we’re pretty confident that they can run that plant safely. I think it’s a question of getting workers healthy again getting them back in and available.”
The plight of essential workers, who voiced to CBC News that they are fearful to return to work tomorrow, must still be considered, said Sheila Block, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Block said that using 2016 census data, she found that there was an overrepresentation of racialized groups and people of colour in the meat processing industry — twice their representation in the total labour force.
“We see these workers as essential, [but] they make about 20 per cent less than the average industrial wage,” Block said. “We rely on these workers, but they are not provided with either remuneration or wages commensurate with how much we rely on them.”
Block said the pandemic has brought into clear focus the divide between those of us who can self-isolate at home and all the people who allow us to do that.
“This case in particular really makes me wonder whether we find that some of our essential workers are expendable,” Block said. “We know what to do, and all we need the will of government to take that collective responsibility and make sure that all employers provide workers with protections.”
There are no reported cases of food or food packaging being associated with the transmission of COVID-19, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.