Stress and fear in the factories: The toll taken by COVID-19 inside some busy Alberta workplaces

Businesses across Alberta have spent the last year on a cycle of closing and reopening.

But in many of the province’s factories, doors have stayed open and the pace has been busy throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the Cargill meat-packing plant in High River, Alta., Jamie Welsh-Rollo said the conditions inside are wet and cold, and that COVID-19 could spread quickly.

The shop steward is a single mother whose son has special needs that may be linked to his immune system, which has made coming into work terrifying.

“I’m scared every single day going to pick up my son from daycare, because I could possibly have the virus and I could give it to my son,” Welsh-Rollo told CBC Edmonton’s Radio Active recently. “Worst case scenario, I’m no longer a mother. And that breaks my heart every single day.”

The plant is currently dealing with an outbreak after previously going through one of North America’s largest COVID-19 outbreaks linked to a single site. The incident last spring resulted in at least 950 positive cases and three deaths.

Those deaths were heartbreaking to Cargill workers, Welsh-Rollo said.

One was her close friend, and fellow shop steward, Benito Quesada. Cargill employees raised money for the families of workers who had died from COVID-19, but Welsh-Rollo said that still doesn’t show how deeply the deaths affected the families and Cargill staff.

“It was absolutely devastating. It hit us really, really hard,” Welsh-Rollo said.

Welsh-Rollo hasn’t had COVID-19 herself but she has isolated five times due to symptoms, and has worked closely with those recovering from the virus to help them apply for workers’ compensation.

Cargill has introduced new safety protocols through the pandemic, but they didn’t come soon enough, Welsh-Rollo said.

Last March, she called for the plant to move tables in the cafeteria to create more distance between staff. Later, she asked for face shields. Neither measure was implemented until an Occupational Health and Safety work order required it, she said.

“Them not wanting to do that and then putting in these safety measures after the fact, it feels like they’re just following protocol and they don’t really care,” Welsh-Rollo said.

Radio Active10:23Cargill plant employees facing risks

It’s been a tense and often dangerous year for factory and plant workers in Canada. We talk to a meat processing employee about the risks she faces every day, and the prospect of being vaccinated. 10:23

Welsh-Rollo said the stress of having to isolate — sometimes multiple times — was made worse by the fact that Cargill workers were limited to 10 days of pay while in quarantine.

Cargill spokesperson Daniel Sullivan said the company offers an employee assistance program and other benefits for workers and their families.

“Besides producing and distributing food and providing essential services, many Cargill employees and third parties have worked quickly and tirelessly behind the scenes to design and implement dozens of initiatives with the health and safety of colleagues as their primary focus,” Sullivan said in an emailed statement. 

Employees are encouraged to seek out and use community supports, Sullivan said.

The federal and provincial governments have programs to provide short-term financial relief for individuals who lost income as a result of COVID-19, either as a result of illness or because they need to quarantine or isolate as a precaution.

Cargill is also facing a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of individuals who had close contact with Cargill employees over last spring’s outbreak.

JBS Outbreak

At the JBS Foods Canada facility in Brooks, more than 600 workers caught COVID-19 in an outbreak one year ago. Despite calls from the plant’s union to close, the site dropped its production from two shifts per day to one but never fully shut down.

A sign outside the JBS meat-packing plant in Brooks, Alta. (CBC)

Trevor Crosby, an electrician at the site for 11 years, said during these early stages of the pandemic there was a lot of fear at JBS.

“No one knew a whole lot about it, people are getting sick and it seemed pretty serious,” Crosby said.

“There’s always that fear of the unknown. It was rough. We went down to one shift and we did the best that we could.”

Production returned to two shifts in May, but stressed it wouldn’t increase the number of people in the plant at any one time, a JBS spokesperson said last year.

JBS implemented safety measures including face masks, more physical distancing, more wash stations and temperature checks, which Crosby said was successful in creating an environment that felt safer.

Vaccination clinics

On Thursday, Alberta announced it plans to open vaccination clinics at meat-packing plants as early as this month, starting with a pilot project at Cargill.

Crosby said JBS is polling workers about the vaccine to set up appointments.

At Cargill, Welsh-Rollo said she’s signed up for the vaccine but is concerned that Cargill has only posted vaccination information in English, which leaves many workers in the dark and potentially feeling less certain about the vaccine, she said.

Currently, Welsh-Rollo is studying to be a paralegal. She said she made this decision after she started feeling less safe at Cargill.

Morale has dropped across the plant, she said, but not necessarily just because of COVID-19. Instead, the past year has taken a toll on what used to be a fun working environment for employees, she said.

“It’s a place where they go and they just do their job and they go home,” Welsh-Rollo said. 

“They have to keep their heads down and make sure they’re not doing anything wrong, and they’re not taken seriously and nobody cares. And that’s how they feel.”

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