Alberta slaughterhouse will temporarily close after worker’s death from growing COVID-19 outbreak

Darwin Doloque’s friends describe him as an eternal optimist, one who couldn’t say no to anyone who needed help.

On Jan. 28, the 35-year-old permanent resident who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines was found dead at his home in Red Deer, Alta. The cause of death was attributed to a case of COVID-19 linked to his work at the city’s Olymel meat-processing plant.

Late Monday, in an abrupt change of position — hours after telling CBC News it planned to remain open — Olymel said it will temporarily shut down the plant, due to the rapidly growing COVID-19 outbreak at the facility.

On Feb. 6, there were 168 cases of COVID-19. As of Monday, there were 326 cases, 192 of which were active.

CBC News spoke to six employees of Olymel for this story and has agreed to withhold their names because they fear they could lose their jobs if they are identified.

Workers had said they were afraid to go to the plant, fearing for their own health and the health of their families. Several described negative effects on their mental wellbeing, as the outbreak continues to spread.

The company said Monday that management now believes the plant can no longer continue normal operations in a safe and efficient manner. 

Operations will cease over the next few days, Olymel said, and the company will continue to investigate how the outbreak grew so large. 

Less than four hours earlier, company spokesperson Richard Vigneault had said neither Alberta Health Services (AHS), the provincial government, nor the company, itself, had yet come to the conclusion that the Red Deer plant should temporarily close. The company’s statement Monday evening did not state the reason for the change of heart. 

The rapid increase in cases had drawn a warning from AHS, which on Thursday sent a letter to the company cautioning that the outbreak “has become a concern for public health.”

The Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer, Alta. A COVID-19 outbreak at the site has infected as many as 1 in 5 workers, Alberta Health Services says. (CBC)

In the letter, which was obtained by CBC News, AHS said around one in five workers was believed to be infected and spreading the virus.

The plant has a workforce of close to 1,850.

The infections are of particular concern, as around 60 per cent of the staff hold at least one other job outside the slaughterhouse.

A spokesperson for Alberta’s labour minister said Sunday that occupational health and safety officials had inspected the facility 14 times, remotely and in-person, since the outbreak began in mid-November, deeming the plant safe to remain open. 

Struggling to breathe

One worker, who is currently positive for COVID-19, struggled to gather the breath to share his story between bouts of coughing.

“We workers, we feel insecure. We feel unsafe inside the plant,” he said over the weekend, before Monday’s announcement. “We are hoping that they will close temporarily.”

“We don’t know what to do.… We are hoping the government will help us regarding this.”

His illness started with a headache. Before he realized he was symptomatic, he had spread the infection to his entire family. 

With everyone sick, he said he worries how they will make rent.

“I am afraid because my family got contaminated too,” he said. “We are all positive and now we don’t have work. We have a big problem.”

We don’t know what to do…. We are hoping the government will help us regarding this.– Worker at Olymel pork-processing plant in Red Deer, Alta.

That worker was not alone in hoping the plant would temporarily shut down.

The union said more than 90 per cent of approximately 600 workers it surveyed through a text-message poll said they wanted the plant to close temporarily, and that 80 per cent of respondents reported feeling unsafe at work.

A production line at a Quebec-based Olymel facility is shown in this file photo from October 2020. Workers at the Red Deer Olymel facility interviewed by CBC News said they’re afraid to go back to work, fearing for their health and the health of their families. (Radio-Canada)

Tom Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 401, said Sunday the union has come to the conclusion that the plant had become a dangerous workplace. He said the union had been in contact with the provincial government and the company, but both had been largely unresponsive.

“We’ve been very disappointed that, even at this stage, we haven’t seen big corporations and the government of Alberta be responsive to what’s become the terror of Albertans,” Hesse said.

The union had called for a temporary shutdown of the facility on Feb. 5.

Hesse said the union is involved in strategy meetings this week and was considering a “variety of further actions.”

Vigneault said earlier on Monday that Olymel has fully co-operated with AHS “to support various actions on our site to control the outbreak.”

Those actions included COVID-19 testing, regular information updates provided to employees, and maintaining a list of employees’ close contacts, he said.

These are in addition to a variety of other measures “already in place since the beginning of the pandemic,” Vigneault said.

Concerns over swab testing

Other workers said they felt the procedures surrounding testing were insufficient given the numbers of their co-workers who, one by one, tested positive for the virus.

When Doloque died, people “started to get paranoid,” said one worker.

A sign outside the Olymel pork plant in Red Deer, Alta., thanks the company’s essential employees. The union says it has surveyed employees, and the majority are scared to report to work due to the growing COVID-19 outbreak. (CBC)

Another worker also raised concerns about swab tests.

“They send the people back inside without the result, and they get the result and they end up tested positive. So it’s already inside,” the worker said, who has also tested positive for COVID-19.

“After that man passed away, there were a lot of people who were a close contact, and then of course they went to work and they didn’t get tested,” the employee said. “The next thing you know, they tested positive. It’s all over the place.”

Before Monday’s announcement, Vigneault said Olymel’s policy dictates employees showing or declaring symptoms will not be allowed to work, and will be refused access and sent home.

Close contacts who choose not to be tested must complete the 14-day isolation as a minimum, he said.

‘We feel unsafe’

One worker said he feared he’d bring the virus home to his daughter, who is immunocompromised.

He said while Olymel has provided workers with face shields and encourages hand washing, there are areas of the workplace where those measures didn’t feel like enough.

“Our cafeteria is very congested,” he said.

“When we get a break we take off our mask, right? So that we can eat.” 

In a recent email to staff, employees were warned that not only could they face $1,200 fines for violating public health orders, they could expect discipline up to and including termination should they not comply with company’s COVID-19 policies.

Vigneault said the company’s surveillance in terms of sanitary measures in place at the plant may reflect “the quality of information and honesty the employee provides.”

“We have strong controls to know where a worker was during the work shift but our weakness is how an employee behaved in private,” Vigneault said. “So we rely on the employee’s honesty to help us.” 

AHS said its inspectors had been in daily contact with the company and visited the site on multiple occasions since the start of the outbreak to identify areas for improvement, should those arise.

The company remains compliant with public health orders, AHS said.

“Many measures were previously undertaken early on in the pandemic, and the site continues to take proactive steps to enhance their practices and mitigation measures,” AHS said.

It said health workers provided a second round of on-site testing for COVID-19 between Feb. 3 and 5, and were working to establish daily on-site testing. 

Other meat plants battle outbreaks

Meat plants have been home to many of the worst outbreaks of the pandemic. 

There are currently eight outbreaks at meat processing or packing facilities in Alberta, including one at Cargill in High River, which was previously the site of the largest outbreak in the country. 

During that outbreak, at least 950 workers tested positive — infecting hundreds of family members and others in the community. A class-action lawsuit and police investigation are underway.

Workers at Cargill told CBC News at the time they were instructed to return to work after testing positive for COVID-19 and while symptomatic.

Workers at both plants describe similar environments — a majority- immigrant population working a fast-paced, high-stress job in close quarters and feeling like they have little recourse.

Those people who have more access to power and privilege seem to get better protections than those who do not.– Sheila Block, senior economist with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives 

“I find that we are here again a giant failure of public policy,” said Sheila Block, with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. 

“We’ve learned a lot about this disease over the last 11 months and it seems like the lessons that we’ve learned aren’t applied equally … those people who have more access to power and privilege seem to get better protections than those who do not.”

In this 2006 file photo, hog carcasses are moved through a series of flame units to burn off hair as they are processed at a Triumph Foods plant in the United States. (The Associated Press)

In the letter sent by AHS to the company, it largely focuses on staff responsibility — reminding workers to self-isolate, notify all employers of a positive test, or risk a $1,200 fine. 

The letter makes two requests of management: that employees be required to be tested if they have previously not been swabbed or have tested negative, and that management monitor breaks to ensure employees keep distance from one another. 

Block said, in her view, it’s immoral to lay blame at the feet of individual employees. She said it’s the government’s responsibility to set and enforce baseline rules to keep workers safe.

Olymel is currently hiring, and the union had said that prior to Monday’s late-day announcement, the plant had been ramping up production.

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