Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley is asking Premier Jason Kenney to launch a public inquiry into a deadly outbreak of COVID-19 at a Red Deer slaughterhouse, delay the meat-packing plant's reopening and compensate its employees during the closure.
The Olymel plant, which had been closed since Feb. 15, confirmed Wednesday that it planned to reopen for slaughter operations on Thursday and resume cutting room operations on Friday.
The news of the reopening came on the same day that a third worker's death had been linked to the outbreak.
According to the union representing workers at the plant, that makes a total of four deaths — including a woman in her 60s previously linked to the outbreak — but the government has yet to confirm that total.
The outbreak has been linked to 511 COVID-19 cases, including 91 that are still active.
Speaking from Calgary's McDougall Centre on Thursday morning, Notley asked the provincial government to keep the plant closed until safety measures requested by the union are met and employees feel safe going back to work.
Opposition, union want inquiry
"With 500 infections and three deaths, [safety measures were] not adequate before," Notley said. "I can only imagine the grief and the stress that they are experiencing as a result."
The union said it supports the NDP's call for a public inquiry, while Olymel said earlier this month that it has improved health and safety measures.
The Alberta government also confirmed to CBC News on Wednesday that Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) had toured the facility on Monday, and again with Alberta Health Services and the union on Tuesday.
In an email, a spokesperson with Alberta's labour and immigration ministry said OHS had inspected the facility 14 times since Nov. 17, adding that AHS had also visited the facility several times.
The spokesperson argued the Opposition's calls for a public inquiry were politically motivated.
"It is disappointing — but not entirely surprising — that the Notley NDP continues to play politics with a global pandemic that has tragically taken the lives of over 22,000 Canadians and over 2.5 million worldwide," the spokesperson said.
Deaths linked to outbreak
The Olymel outbreak was first declared on Nov. 17, 2020, and the first death linked to the plant's outbreak happened on Jan. 28.
Darwin Doloque, a 35-year-old permanent resident who immigrated to Canada from the Philippines was found dead in his home.
His death was followed on Feb. 24 by that of Henry De Leon, a 50-year-old who immigrated from the Dominican Republic and had worked at the plant for 15 years. He left behind a wife, two adult children and three grandchildren.
The third worker's identity has not yet been made public, nor has the identity of the woman in her 60s who died. It has not been disclosed how she was linked to the outbreak.
Notley said Thursday the NDP is aware of three Olymel workers who are currently in intensive care.
In an interview with CBC News on Thursday after the news conference, Thomas Hesse, the president of UFCW Local 401 — the union representing the workers — said he is hearing reports about people linked to the plant who are "gravely ill."
"We are very, very, very worried that we are going to see more loss of human life in the coming days," he said.
Notley said that outbreaks have occurred in meatpacking plants across the country since the pandemic started, but shutdowns occurred sooner in other provinces.
She called for an immediate public inquiry to understand the Olymel plant's handling of the outbreak.
"We need to hold those responsible accountable," Notley said. "I fear that instead we are doing nothing, or very little."
For his part, Hesse said his feelings about the reopening mirror those of the the plant's employees who are scared, confused and grieving.
"Moves to reopen the plant have to be seen through that perspective; there's a lot of insensitivity here," he said.
Some of the union's recommended changes had been adopted by the plant, Hesse said.
But according to Hesse, neither public health nor Olymel officials have spoken to any employees at the plant about the plant's safety conditions, or how they feel about their workplace.
"Our legal system is based on talking to witnesses, and they haven't talked to any of the actual witnesses to the functioning of this workplace, or the risks that are built into [it]," Hesse said.
He would have liked to have seen employees interviewed about the plant's safety, and corrections made in accordance with their feedback, before having those employees report back on their implementation.
In the absence of this, Hesse said he agrees with the request for a public inquiry.
"Alberta Health Services, government agencies that are involved here — they're spending Alberta taxpayer's money. I mean, taxpayers fund those agencies, those agencies have a responsibility … and by all indicators, they're doing little or nothing to save lives and protect these workers."
The NDP's request to delay the plant's reopening came with an acknowledgement from Notley that the slowdown or shutdown of meat plants jeopardize livelihood of employees.
She asked the provincial government to compensate workers for lost wages.
"It is not something that needs to be provided by workers literally being compelled to put their lives at risk," Notley said. "That is an immoral choice."
Company says it has worked with AHS
According to Alberta Pork, 40,000 to 50,000 pigs go through the Red Deer facility each week.
Last month, it was reported that the temporary closure of the Olymel pork processing plant due to COVID-19 left hog farmers scrambling to find somewhere to take their animals.
On Wednesday, Olymel defended plans to reopen Thursday, saying it had used the temporary closure to update and reinforce health and safety measures at the plant.
"Reopening can occur because Olymel management and the regulators are satisfied that employees can return to the plant safely," said spokesperson Richard Vigneault.
"Alberta Health Services authorities have however specified that the coronavirus is still spreading and that everyone is at risk of contracting it, whether in the community or otherwise. Accordingly, they recommend the utmost vigilance."
The company said teams from Alberta Health Services, Occupational Health and Safety, and Environmental Public Health visited the facility on March 1 and 3. AHS made several recommendations at that time.
The company said it had added staff to monitor and enforce health and safety measures, and "further adjusted and enhanced" social distancing protocols, particularly when it came to adding physical space.
Health and safety meetings between management and union representatives are scheduled on a daily basis, the company said.
Safety recommendations made
The Alberta government confirmed to CBC News that it will continue to oversee health measures at the plant.
"OHS continues to monitor Olymel to ensure safety protocols and measures continue to be used to limit the spread of COVID-19," Joseph Dow said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.
According to Dow, AHS made safety recommendations to be implemented before the plant's reopening.
The measures recommended by AHS included:
Implement capacity limits in lockers rooms and washrooms.
Remove reusable dishes in break rooms.
Enhance cleaning/disinfecting schedules of washrooms, break rooms and locker rooms.
Add more hand-sanitizing stations throughout.
Increase education plan for staff, including staff training sessions, posters and other visuals.