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'It's irresponsible': Some workers at shuttered poultry plant came to work sick
VANCOUVER -- A day after provincial health authorities announced 28 workers at a Vancouver poultry plant had tested positive for COVID-19, B.C.’s premier revealed that at least some of them had stayed on the job while feeling sick.
“Workers were coming to work because they were fearful that they would lose wages and not be able to meet their expenses,” John Horgan said Wednesday. “It’s irresponsible."
On Monday, United Poultry Ltd., which industry experts say processes less than four percent of the two million birds that move through B.C. plants every week, was shuttered by Vancouver Coastal Health, and employees sent home to self-isolate.
B.C.’s top doctor said Wednesday that’s both to prevent the spread of infection, and to make changes to the work flow at United so those who are well can return to work safely.
Dr. Bonnie Henry also echoed the premier on the importance of keeping isolated when sick: “Let me be 100 per cent clear…stay home, stay away from others, and immediately contact [health authorities].”
“We do not penalize employees for staying home if they are ill during this pandemic," she added.
There is no evidence that United Poultry did so.
A search of United Poultry’s corporate registry led CTV News to a director by the name of Clifford M. Pollon.
A man with the same name is also listed as the director for East Vancouver’s Hallmark Farms, and for Langley’s JD Sweid Foods. On Wednesday, both processing plants appeared to be fully operational.
A person who answered the phone at Hallmark Farms told CTV News Pollon was in a meeting. He did not return the call or an email also sent to Hallmark.
When asked whether it was possible that workers at United Poultry might have spread the virus to other plants, Vancouver Coastal Health told CTV News that concern has been part of their initial investigation.
“There is no movement of staff between these facilities,” wrote VCH spokesperson Matt Kieltyka. “But out of an abundance of caution we investigated the other processing plant in our region and don’t have any concerns.”
Fraser Health, which has jurisdiction in Langley, told CTV News there had been “no crossover” to other poultry plants in their region.
Craig Evans, the executive director of the Primary Poultry Processors Association for B.C., which represents the interest of processors, called the outbreak a “blip” and highlighted changes that had been implemented across B.C. plants that employ between 3,000 and 4,000 workers.
Evans said those include daily temperature checks, increased hand hygiene and sanitation, and no-guest policies.
“These things happen,” Evans said. “We’ve seen outbreaks at different foods plants. it’s having your plans and contingencies in place once it happens.”
On the supply side, Bill Vanderspek, executive director of the B.C. Chicken Marketing Board, said there would be zero impact on store shelves, because birds meant for United had already been diverted to other processors.
Vanderspek added that the industry is coming up with plans on how to handle an outbreak at a larger plant, but said “we just hope that doesn’t happen.”
The Canada Food Inspection Agency, which oversees the meat and poultry processing industry, is also involved in the investigation.
While it has issued health and safety guidance for both workers and employers during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unclear what protocols were or were not being followed, and what specific improvements B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry implied need to be made.