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CALGARY — Some employees of a central Alberta pork plant that shut down due to COVID-19 are afraid to go back to work, their union president says.

Olymel's facility in Red Deer was shuttered Feb. 15 because of an outbreak in which three people have died and 515 workers have been infected.

The company announced late Wednesday it had been given approval to gradually reopen by Alberta Health. Slaughter operations resumed Thursday and cutting-room operations were scheduled to start again Friday. The plant processes about 10,000 hogs a day.

Thomas Hesse, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 401, said he received no word from the company that the plant was reopening.

"Obviously the bottom line for Olymel is they're just putting pigs ahead of people," Hesse in an interview Wednesday.

"What you've got is a frightened workforce. There's this enormous amount of fear and anxiety, and now a layer of grief on top of that, and they expect employees to jump to attention and parade back to work."

The union represents about 1,800 workers at the plant.

Hesse said the union interviewed between 600 and 700 workers who indicated they were afraid to return. He said that wasn't done by Olymel, Alberta Health Services or Occupational Health and Safety.

Hesse said he expects some workers will take advantage of their right to refuse unsafe work.

Olymel announced late Wednesday it had been given approval to gradually reopen by Alberta Health, but the president of the workers' union says between 600 and 700 workers have indicated they are afraid to return.

"I have no confidence in the safety of the workplace," he said.

Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said the plant shouldn't be reopened until it is deemed to be safe inside. She also wants a public inquiry called into Olymel's situation.

"To date, 500 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed among Olymel employees. With the three confirmed deaths to date it is now the deadliest meat-packing plant outbreak in the country," Notley said at a news conference in Calgary on Thursday.

"I'm hoping the premier will do the right thing. I'm hoping he will delay the opening of Olymel. I'm hoping that he will appropriately compensate meat producers. I'm hoping he will finally launch a full inquiry into the outrageous record in this province at meat-packing plants."

Notley is also seeking a commitment from the justice minister that he will not intervene with any legislation that would protect potentially negligent corporations from lawsuits filed by victims’ families.

Olymel said the reopening is coming with a number of strict measures. Alberta Health experts are to be on site and are to offer rapid testing.

The company said 1,370 employees have been tested since Jan. 1 and space has been added to improve physical distancing.

Additional staff have been assigned to monitor and enforce updated safety standards, Olymel said. Employee groups have been recalled to take part in training sessions covering all health measures, adjustments and the plan for reopening.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 4, 2021.

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