CALGARY -- The president of a union representing employees at some of the largest meat-packing plants in Canada says there needs to be a discussion about making the COVID-19 vaccine more readily available to essential workers.

While acknowledging the current vaccine shortages, Thomas Hesse, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401 president, says workers at the Cargill meat-packing plant near High River, ALta. and the JBS Canada plant in Brooks, Alta. should not face an extended wait

"In the coming months at some point someone's going to make a decision about who gets the vaccination. Will there be a priority? Will there be any prioritization of any so-called essential workers?" he asked in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The two plants, which together normally process about 70 per cent of Canada's beef supply, were hot spots for COVID-19 outbreaks last spring.

Cargill's plant, located south of Calgary, shut down for two weeks in April due to an outbreak that initially affected 350 of its 2,200 workers. Eventually nearly half the workers contracted the novel coronavirus and two employees died.

COVID-19 forced JBS to reduce its production to a single shift a day for a month, which added to a backlog of cattle at feedlots. The plants brought in safety measures that included temperature testing, physical distancing, and cleaning and sanitizing before they returned to normal operations.

Packing-plant employees are still at risk, Hesse said.

"In a Cargill or a JBS or other manufacturing facility in Alberta, there'll be a couple of thousand workers in a big box still working in relatively proximity," he said.

"These are essential workers. They're at higher risk. This is clearly an occupational disease. Many of them want to have access to a safe vaccine."

Hesse said the union plans to hold a town hall meeting Sunday to hear members views and what to do if getting a vaccination becomes a condition of employment.

Alberta Health says it would like to offer the vaccine to many more Albertans, including meat-packing plan workers, as quickly as possible but the effort has been hindered by supply issues.

"We recognize the important role that these workers, and many, many others play," said Alberta Health  spokesperson Tom McMillan. 

According to McMillan, a decision on who will be included the province's second phase of vaccinations has yet to be made.

"We will make those decisions in the coming weeks as we learn more about how many doses will be available."

An official with Cargill said the company is working with health authorities and medical experts to make sure its employees have access to vaccines when they become available without jeopardizing the priority being given to health-care workers

"We will prioritize our front-line workers whenever we can, as they continue to work tirelessly to keep our food system going strong," said Daniel Sullivan in an email.

"Because we know vaccines don't work without vaccinations, we also will join local health authorities in promoting the importance of vaccination among our employees."

JBS USA said it will offer all its employees a $100 bonus, including those in Brooks, if they get vaccinated in the future.

"Our goal is to remove any barriers to vaccination and incentivize our team members to protect themselves, their families and their co-workers," said CEO Andre Nogueira.

Although companies are incentivizing or encouraging vaccinations, they cannot make it mandatory according to one employment lawyer.

“They can’t force employees to necessarily get vaccinated,” said Sarah Miller of JSS Barristers.

“They can indicate that that’s their preference, (and) they encourage you to do it, those types of things, but the result is you can’t terminate any(one) for that, and you can’t discriminate anybody on the basis of that or harass them on that basis.”

With files from The Canadian Press' Bill Graveland