The union representing the workers at the High River Cargill plant is frustrated at a recent ruling surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak at the plant in April 2020.

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local No. 401 filed the grievance following what they described as one of the largest workplace COVID outbreaks in North America, which saw over 900 confirmed cases and was linked to the deaths of two employees.

As part of their grievance, UFCW sought $10,000 in compensation to be paid for each of the plant's roughly 2,000 employees, as well as $100,000 to be paid to the union, totalling over $20,000,000.

Among the claims made by the union were that Cargill had not met its obligations to provide a safe work environment under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and that the company had failed to consult the Joint Health and Safety Committee (JHSC) in identifying and mitigating hazards presented by COVID-19.

They also claim that many hazards were not addressed quickly enough, including crowding in areas like cafeterias, locker rooms, and bathrooms.

On June 10, 2024, Arbitrator James Casey concluded that Cargill did fail to comply with their Collective Agreement by not meeting its obligations to the JHSC but did meet its minimum obligation to ensure the safety of employees and therefore would not have to pay damages.

A large part of the decision wrote Casey, was the fact that in the early months of the pandemic, health authorities were instructing the public to take measures to prevent droplet transmission and surface transmission, while aerosol transmission hadn't yet been identified as a major vector of transmission for COVID-19.

"In the relevant time frame, none of the public health authorities publicly acknowledged a possibility of aerosol transmission. It was not that the authoritative public health authorities were stating that they did not know how COVID-19 spread, and that aerosol transmission was one possibility. On the contrary, the public health authorities said that COVID-19 was spread through droplet and surface transmission and specifically discounted any possibility of aerosol transmission," wrote Casey. "As of April 2020, Alberta Health Services did not believe in widespread aerosol transmission. In these circumstances, I do not consider that Cargill should have employed the precautionary principle to design safety measures based on the possibility of aerosol transmission."

The union responded via a media release, expressing their frustration at the "shameful and callous" decision.

"These workers spend hours on end shoulder-to-shoulder engaging in some of the most dangerous and physically demanding work in the world," said UFCW Local 401 president Thomas Hesse in the release. "When COVID-19 began spreading through Alberta, it was clear to us that they were in danger. While many Albertans could work from home during that period, our Cargill members could not."

Hesse said that while most Albertans were able to safely work from home soon after the onset of the pandemic, Cargill's employees were done a disservice by being made to continue working in close quarters during those uncertain early days.

"Where there is a risk to human life, health and safety demands that we err on the side of caution. Every life, no matter whose it is, is worth saving. This case reveals that the Government of Alberta and Cargill failed to protect people and the arbitration decision provides a shaky attempt to justify a lack of courage and an unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of the vulnerable."

UFCW Local 401 is currently working with a law firm to review the decision and prepare an appeal.