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When Going to Work Means Taking a Calculated Risk

2020-05-30 00:53:14

Last week I spoke with one of Canada’s leading experts about the effects of working from home. But the coronavirus shutdown has also created a class of people who still go to their regular workplaces but may not want to be there.

There has been no obvious reluctance among health care workers, who have courageously been working all along.

At several long-term care centers in Quebec and Ontario, caregivers and residents have been dealing with major coronavirus outbreaks, a situation made worse by the failures of management that were highlighted again this week in a horrifying report by the Canadian military on five homes in Ontario.

And now, a growing number of shop workers are back on the job, after the easing of government orders that had closed most stores in Canada except in British Columbia. The latest reopenings came this week in Montreal.

Masks and plastic shields may provide some protection. But the return to work, even if it means not being among the three million Canadians who have lost their jobs during the outbreak, will most likely feel uneasy for many. It’s a source of anxiety that even the bonus pay some now receive for continuing to work may not offset.

In the meatpacking industry, staying on the job has brought not only widespread illness but also death.

In High River, Alberta, a town in the foothills of the Rockies, a meatpacking plant owned by Cargill, which is headquartered in Minnesota, has Canada’s largest single outbreak. More than 1,500 coronavirus infections and three deaths have been linked to the outbreak within the plant, most of them employees. Another meatpacking plant, in Brooks, Alberta, owned by JBS of Brazil, is linked with hundreds of cases. And about 40 federal meat inspectors who work in those plants have become infected as well, says the union that represents them.

The union representing the plants’ workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, told me that many of the employees were either recent immigrants or temporary foreign workers. (The union also noted that Cargill works with it to gain permanent immigration status for the latter.)

Neither plant is particularly automated. Employees stand shoulder-to-shoulder in the noisy plants, disassembling carcasses.

Outbreaks in the meatpacking industry have also been common in the United States. My colleagues on the Business desk, Ana Swanson, David Yaffe-Bellany and Michael Corkery, have produced a harrowing, in-depth report about a pork plant in Iowa.

But the structure of the meatpacking industry in the 21st century creates significant economic pressure to keep plants running. Sven Anders, an agricultural economist at the University of Alberta, told me that the two plants in Alberta plus a third Cargill facility in Guelph, Ontario, processed upward of 95 percent of Canada’s beef production, much of which is exported to the United States.

Calgary Stampede, canceled this year, isn’t a nostalgic throwback, he said: The cattle industry that it celebrates is still a vital segment of Alberta’s economy.

Giant plants — the one in Brooks has more 2,600 employees — have become the foundation of the beef industry, Professor Anders said. They bring substantial cost reductions, but they also create working conditions that are ideal for spreading disease.

He said he doubted that the coronavirus would bring a return to small-scale meatpacking plants. That, Professor Anders said, might backfire on consumers.

“It’s a bit hypocritical to come back now and criticize the massive size of this industry because don’t we all want to buy a rib-eye steak two dollars cheaper if we could?” he said.

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.

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