Union calls for delay of potential reopening of Red Deer slaughterhouse after deadly COVID outbreak

The union representing workers at a Red Deer slaughterhouse is calling for its potential reopening this week to be delayed, saying in an open letter that employees do not feel safe after a deadly outbreak of COVID-19.

Alberta Health Services (AHS) declared an outbreak at the Olymel Red Deer Food Processing Plant on Nov. 17, and by the end of February it had been linked to at least 500 cases and three reported deaths.

The plant temporarily closed more than two weeks ago, and nearly three weeks after the first death related to the outbreak — Darwin Doloque, a 35-year-old permanent resident who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines. A few weeks later, Henry De Leon, 50, died, followed by a third woman in her 60s.

In a letter obtained by CBC News, plant manager Rob Ackerblade informed employees on Feb. 28 that if a March 1 inspection by AHS and Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) should be successful, gradual reopening dates for the Olymel plant could be March 3 for the slaughterhouse and March 4 for the cutting room.

“The purpose of this memo is to inform you of a potential upcoming and gradual reopening of the facility subject to the recommendation of the health authorities [AHS],” Ackerblade said.

However, UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse said in an open letter of his own on Monday that the union conducted a survey of employees ahead of the plant’s potential reopening, and found “definitive trends” had emerged among responses.

“These results make a few things clear: Olymel workers still do not feel safe at the plant, they do not trust either Olymel or government officials to keep them safe,” Hesse wrote in part.

Union requests ‘action items’ before reopening

More than 75 per cent of nearly 600 employees surveyed said that they feel nervous or scared to return to work, while 75 per cent also indicated they do not fully trust Olymel to keep them safe, the letter said.

Meanwhile, more than 80 per cent of respondents said they are unsure the plant is safe, while more than 50 per cent of respondents indicated they do not fully trust government officials to keep them safe.

The union’s letter listed more than 20 “action items” that it said should be fulfilled before reopening is considered, in order to regain the confidence of employees and ensure their safety.

The list included the installation of barriers, additional staff to clean and sanitize the space, and full compensation for employees during the time the plant was closed.

The union also noted that plant management appeared to be preparing to reopen before recommendations and conclusions were made by those tasked with reviewing the plant’s safety, and called this “disturbing.”

“How can anyone possibly be ready to deem the plant safe for reopening before those bodies have provided their findings?” Hesse wrote.

‘Consequences will be on your conscience’

CBC News asked Alberta Health for confirmation that the plant was intending to open, and what safety measures had been put in place since the outbreak.

A government spokesperson advised the CBC to direct questions to the plant’s management and union representatives, but said AHS is working with the plant.

“AHS continues to work in partnership with Olymel management, union representatives and community partners in responding to the outbreak and ensuring that staff have the supports they and their family require,” the statement said.

For its part, Ackerblade said in his letter that the Olymel plant would not reopen until the AHS inspection was completed and a recommendation was issued.

“These gradual and potential reopening dates will be valid only if the AHS inspection comes up with a positive reopening recommendation,” Ackerblade’s letter said.

He also told employees in the letter that additional measures have been put in place to make the plant safer.

“Olymel has reviewed and adjusted many of the health measures put in place since the start of the pandemic, even adding more spaces to further promote social distancing,” he said.

“A possible reopening also means that supervisors and staff assigned to overseeing the application of protective measures should receive an update in their training in this regard.”

But Hesse concluded his letter by stating the consequences “somewhat bluntly,” he said, of failing to secure the plant’s safety.

“Please know that unless you can guarantee no one else will become ill and no one else will die, the rushed reopening of Olymel’s Red Deer plant and the resulting consequences will be on your conscience – and yours alone.”

CBC News has also reached out to OHS and Olymel’s corporate communications for comment. It has yet to receive a response.

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