CALGARY -- The union representing workers at the Cargill High River protein facility says around 1,000 employees have been laid off following an outbreak of COVID-19 related cases at the plant.

"We’re very disappointed because we’re not really hearing from Cargill," said Tom Hesse, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers.

The union said about 2,000 workers are split into a morning and afternoon shift.

"We’re being told by workers that they have laid off 1000 workers, and we’re told that a large portion of our workers never showed up this morning to do what they call, the kill, which is the slaughter of the animals," he said.

The union is unsure whether the layoffs are temporary or permanent.

As of Monday, 38 employees tested positive for the virus. Union officials said one person has since been hospitalized.

The union pleaded with Cargill on Monday to close the facility for a two-week period to limit the spread of Covid-19.

"I have no idea why Cargill isn’t doing the right thing and shutting down the plant," said Hesse.

Cargill temporarily reducing shifts

In a statement, Cargill said it has not laid off employees, only that it has temporarily cut shifts.

"We have decided to temporarily idle our second shift operation at our High River protein plant," said North American lead Jon Nash of Cargill Protein.

"Our facility will be back to operating at full capacity as soon as it is safe to do so."

Alberta’s Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen said plants like Cargill have to remain open, while at the same time keeping employees safe.

"These plants need to be operational in order for our food supply system to operate," said Dreeshen.

He added that new, rigorous protocols have been developed for food processing plants, including the one in High River, to keep employees safe while they continue to move products.

"Those protocols have been worked on for the last few weeks and they are in place right now," said Dreeshen.

The Canadian Cattleman’s Association said about 40 percent of the beef processed in Western Canada comes from the High River plant.