As of May 8, the outbreak at the Cargill meat packing plant in High River, Alberta, is the single largest workplace outbreak of coronavirus in North America. The plant employs 2000 people--946 workers have already tested positive for COVID-19. The virus has already killed one worker at the plant and another worker’s father.
Despite the objections of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, the union representing these workers, Cargill reopened the plant on May 4. Progress Alberta has been on site to hear from the workers. One of these workers, who asked to remain anonymous, told us about their experience at the plant.
Did you work today?
“I didn’t. They informed us that if we don’t feel safe going back to work we must stay, so I chose to stay in my home, because as of now I don’t feel safe going back to work.”
Why don’t you feel safe going back to work?
“Because half of the 2000 Cargill employees tested positive. They told us that they fixed everything, put proper protections on the equipment, but I heard from my co-workers as of yesterday that only selected people were given face masks.”
How are you feeling right now?
“As of now I am really scared. I tested positive a couple of weeks ago and I don’t know what’s happened. Why is the government is allowing them to reopen in such a short time? I don’t know the reason.”
When did you get sick?
“I volunteered myself to go in isolation until April 6. Then between April 6 and April 9 I went back to work. Some time from April 6 to April 9 I got the virus. The following week I didn’t feel comfortable so I went to one of the clinics in Okotoks to get a swab test and I tested positive.”
When you had to stay home because you had the virus, did you get sick pay?
“I’ve haven’t been paid. From April 13, until today I haven’t been paid. I called Cargill HR and they told me to apply for short-term disability from my insurance.”
But Cargill promised to pay workers who got sick.
“Yeah. They told us they would pay but I didn’t receive any amount from them… I’ve handed this off to my union representatives. Our voice is dependent on the union. And they’re trying, they’re trying. They’re trying to fight. As I observe the union they’re doing good.”
Will you return to work at the plant? And what will you do in the meantime?
“I will wait until we know more about the situation. I will observe this week or the next couple of weeks... I applied for the CERB and luckily I got it a couple of days after I applied and they sent the money. And thanks for that, it paid the bills… it’s been a big help.”
(CERB is the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, a federal program to support workers impacted by the pandemic.)
How do you feel Cargill has treated you and your co-workers?
“I did not feel any comfort from them, any assurance from them. If you were done with your job they were going to replace you, that’s all. They only care for the line... They want to run, run run.”