CALGARY -- The recent outbreak of the novel coronavirus at meat packing houses and the potential risk of exposure grocery store employees face on a regular basis has prompted the food workers union to call for increased safety measures.

In a letter to Premier Jason Kenney dated April 23, Tom Hesse, president of United Food Commercial Workers (UFCW) Canada Union Local 401, asked the province to treat food workers — who have been designated by the province as contributors to an essential service — as essential and not expendable.

"Our members have become sick with COVID-19, and some have died," said Hesse in his letter. "Recent events suggest that food production has been prioritized over protection of workers’ lives. As a result of the situations at Cargill in High River and JBS in Brooks, we have lost faith in the willingness of the Alberta government to do everything necessary to protect workers.

"Now is the time for everyone involved to truly work together to ensure the safety of food workers, our members. It is long past time to establish a working group of labour, employers, and health experts to set rules and regulations to protect workers’ lives in all food sector workplaces. This should involve a worker-centred approach that emphasizes the experiences of workers in the food processing industry. It should also be comprised of individuals far removed from political and employer agendas."

Hesse says the union has been working with employers in an effort to ensure social distancing measures are observed and personal protective equipment (PPE) is available to employees, but, without government regulation and enforcement of the rules, worker safety can fall through the gaps.

UFCW is calling on the province to introduce several measures including:

  • The immediate closure of a workplace where an outbreak occurs for a period of at least 14 days and the testing of all employees who work at the facility. The workplace is to remain closed until the province and union confirm it is safe to resume operation.
  • A hazard pay increase to 1.5 times the regular hourly rate for food workers for all hours worked during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Daily, unannounced spot checks by the government to ensure social distancing and safety guidelines are followed.
  • Increased paid breaks to facilitate frequent hand washing.
  • Presumptive status for all food sector claims to WCB during the pandemic.
  • Employer-paid leave for food workers unable to work due to COVID-19.
  • Mandatory weekly health and safety committee meetings.
  • Job security for workers too afraid to attend work.
  • Protection of immigration status of workers.
  • Guaranteed access to health care for food workers who do not meet the residency requirements for coverage.

The union has also released a list of requested changes to grocery store operations. The requests include:

  • Continuous masking of workers, customers and contractors.
  • Restrictions on the number of customers in a store at any given time.
  • Improved signage, cashier barriers and directional floor markings.
  • Bylaw enforcement of social distancing.
  • Closure of all self-scan stations.
  • Removal of all shopping baskets, ending practice of pay-for-use shopping carts.
  • Reduced hours of operation to prevent worker fatigue.
  • Closure every second weekend to allow stores to be deep cleaned while allowing workers time to rest.

"Grocery stores and food processing plants are the last major battlefields to defeat COVID-19. Surely, we have now learned lessons from the horrific outbreak affecting more than 480 at Cargill in High River and the developing outbreak at JBS in Brooks. We are at a junction in these food workplaces where we still have the opportunity to avoid the same experience. We cannot afford to wait."

The officer of the premier has not commented on the demands of the UFCW.