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COVID-19 cases climb in High River meat packing plant

Cargill union representatives for workers at High River, Alberta plant call for company to release case data and details on additional safety measures.
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The Cargill meat packing plant near High River. (file)

HIGH RIVER – Rising cases of the Omicron variant in Alberta has the union representing High River's Cargill meat-packing plant calling for more protections and case data. 

Early reports identify more than 40 positive cases of the highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 are linked to the facility, but the company didn't confirm these numbers. 

"Like everyone, we are seeing cases in our facilities, including High River, ebb and flow as communities work to manage the spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19," said company spokesman Daniel Sullivan. 

Sullivan said the facility is still operating, albeit at a slightly reduced capacity due to illness, and safety protocols are being implemented. Measure include temperature testing, enhanced cleaning, employee screening, social distancing and staggered breaks. 

He said these safety measures have been in place since the pandemic's start and are still in effect.

In 2020, Cargill closed its doors temporarily after more than 484 cases of COVID-19 and one death were linked to the plant. By fall, union members were voting on a new contract that promised more safety measures and compensation, avoiding a strike just ahead of the December deadline. 

"I fear that we are standing at the precipice of yet another devastating tragedy associated with this pandemic," union president Thomas Hesse said in a letter to employers, which includes Cargill. 

"Frankly, serious mistakes were made when government and employers first faced the pandemic. Those mistakes resulted in nothing less than serious illness and the loss of human life," the letter continued. "I plead with you not to make the same mistakes nearly two years later." 

He's asking employers to provide details on what they're doing to mitigate the threat of Omicron, including having independent assessments completed on ventilation and air quality, providing staff with appropriate PPE, making rapid testing available to mitigate potential outbreaks and adjusting sick pay and absences to ensure workers won't lose income if they must isolate. 

UFCW Local 401's letter acknowledged case data will be difficult to obtain as workers have little to no access to testing and Hesse requested employers provide data about absenteeism rates on an ongoing basis. 

The High River facility has a more than 84 per cent vaccination rate and booster shots continue to be encouraged, Sullivan said.

"We continue to work to meet the needs of our customers and producers who we know join us in thanking our valued employees for their ongoing dedication throughout the pandemic."