Some workers are terrified at the prospect of returning to work at Olymel, where hundreds were infected with COVID, says a worker.
Advocate file photo

Olymel employees “terrified” by spread of virus, says plant worker

Many workers fear being put in position of trading health for income

Many Olymel employees are “terrified” of returning to work after hundreds were infected by COVID-19, says a pork plant worker.

“I chose not to go into work today just because of what’s going on,” said the man in his early 20s who works on the kill floor. “I don’t feel safe going in there.”

The two-year employee said plant officials told him and his co-workers that production at the plant was going to be temporarily paused and the kill floor was being shut down.

If he wanted to continue to get paid he had to go to the pork-cutting side of the plant, where employees work more closely together. But that is where most of the more than 300 workers who have been infected are employed and he and his co-workers were afraid they could be infected too, said the man. He asked that his name not be used for fear of losing his job.

“Everyone is just pretty terrified to go over there and work over on pork cut. People have families, people themselves might be immuno-compromised,” he said, adding he fears bringing home COVID because he has a roommate who has respiratory health issues that make him particularly vulnerable.

“They are scared to go over there and contract the virus for a multitude of different reasons. And Olymel is giving them no choice. Either sacrifice your pay or sacrifice your safety.

“People shouldn’t have to risk the sanctity of their family, the safety of their family to put food on the table.”

Olymel employees are trying to find out through the company and their union what sort of financial help might be available. But there have not been a lot of answers to their questions so far.

“Everybody is terrified about the future and they’re also frustrated with the company’s lack of concern.”

The worker said he has heard that the temporary shut down might last about a week.

“I feel like that’s not long enough.”

For workers who rely on their Olymel pay cheques, the prospect of a lengthy shutdown is not inviting. However, they are also concerned that too short a shutdown will not stem the spread of infection.

“It’s kind of like choosing the lesser of two evils. The options all suck, to be honest. It’s just trying to figure out which sucks the least.”

Alberta medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw was asked on Wednesday at her daily COVID update how Olymel could determine it was too unsafe to operate while at the same time was in compliance with all health regulations.

Hinshaw said she has spoken with Red Deer health officials who have been working with Olymel.

Since the first cases were identified in November there were no “significant transmission events” over the following months.

“The plant was operating in accordance with the measures that were required to stop transmission in the plant,” she said.

Hinshaw said she could not comment directly on Olymel’s decision to shut down, adding the company’s provisions inside the plant were up to the standards required to prevent transmission of the virus.

“But, of course, we know from other experiences that we need to take an approach that looks at the entire community and not just on-site but off-site activities.”

AHS is working with the company and employees to provide the necessary support so “that they don’t have to make any kind of difficult decision between choosing to isolate or quarantine and losing income …”



pcowley@reddeeradvocate.com

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