Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Cargill, COVID, and the failure of Alberta OHS policy

This post first appeared on the Parkland Institute blog.

Two meat-packing plants in southern Alberta have given rise to nearly one in six of Alberta’s 3400 cases of COVID-19. These two outbreaks demonstrate how Alberta’s occupational health and safety (OHS) system is failing workers due to inherent shortcomings as well as the short-sighted politics of the provincial government. In this analysis we examine what went wrong at the two meatpacking plants, what it tells us about the inadequacy of OHS policy in Alberta and how the incidents could have been avoided.

Update: As of April 27, the Cargill plant has been associated with nearly 1100 cases. this is approximately 1 in 4 cases in Alberta.

Meatpacking in Alberta

Earlier this week, the Cargill meatpacking plant in High River closed after one worker died and 480 are ill from COVID-19. Approximately 140 related cases caused by community transmission are also being investigated, including three spouses of Cargill employees who work in a local retirement home. Over in Brooks, the JBS plant is down to a single shift after over 120 workers contracted the disease and hundreds of others have refused to come to work due to fear of getting the disease. So far, one JBS worker has died from COVID.

Working conditions in a meatpacking plant are grueling and dangerous. The work is fast and physically demanding and the worksite is crowded and hazardous. Workers typically stand elbow-to-elbow, wielding knives and blades while the assembly line of carcasses never ceases. Employers organize work this way to maximize profitability. One side effect of this job design is that viruses and bacteria are easily spread from worker to worker.

Employers have also ground down wages and working conditions over the past 25 years. The majority of workers in meatpacking plants today are recent immigrants and temporary migrant workers. Many of the plant workers live in smaller rural communities where there are fewer community supports and the newcomers are often isolated. Some workers commute from larger urban centres. Although represented by a union, the 2,000 workers at Cargill broadly fit this pattern.

Occupational Health and Safety in Alberta

Alberta relies primarily on the internal responsibility system (IRS) for ensuring workplaces are safe for workers. The IRS makes employers and workers jointly responsible for ensuring safety. The IRS is premised on the assumption that both employers and workers desire safe workplaces. There is a long history of Canadian employers ignoring and hiding hazards in order to keep making money, which suggests the assumption of a shared interest in safety is false.

In theory, government inspections are supposed to keep employers honest, but inspections are rare and employers face little chance of being sanctioned even if they get caught breaking the rules. Not surprisingly, employers don’t tend to take OHS very seriously and only control hazards where the control is cheaper than the injury. Workers know this and often find themselves fearful of exercising their safety rights.

Academic research suggests Alberta’s OHS system does not work very well. A 2016 survey of 2,000 Alberta workers found that one in five workers (408,000 people) were injured on the job the previous year, including 170,700 who were seriously injured. Only about 30% of these serious injuries are reported. This data is broadly consistent with other studies of Alberta injury completed in 2002 and 2018. These long-standing shortcomings in Alberta’s OHS system set the stage for significant levels of illness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workplace Safety Failures

Alberta’s approach to managing COVID-19 in workplaces has failed the workers in meat-packing plants in three ways. First, Alberta’s OHS enforcement regime didn't work. The government inspectors conducted a safety inspection via Facetime, with company officials videoing areas of the plant. Importantly, the kill floor (an important site of close worker contact) was not in operation during the inspection. Based on this inspection, the government officials deemed the infection control measures taken by the employer to be sufficient. The union—which had been expressing concerns since the first COVID-19 cases appeared at the facility weeks prior—was not informed of the inspection.

While a virtual inspection is wholly inadequate, a physical inspection may not have changed the outcome. Remember that the IRS assumes all parties have similar interests in safety. This assumption means inspectors often defer to employers in deciding which protections are reasonably practicable to implement. In this case, Cargill implemented masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) after demands by the union but refused to slow or temporarily cease production, reduce the number of workers in a physical space, or alter the workflow to protect workers from infection—all changes sought by the workers and their union. Employers prefer PPE because it is cheaper and does not interfere with production or profit. OHS is weakly positioned to challenge employer decisions about safety, and so enforcement officers are likely to agree that PPE is sufficient. Often, as in this case, it is not.

The second failing is operational and involves gaps that appear to exist between OHS and the public health officials from Alberta Health Services (AHS). Each agency has a unique role to play in protecting Albertans. In a pandemic, these roles overlap and no structures have been put into place for handling that fact. As a result, gaps emerge.

For example, OHS is concerned solely with what happens at work. Consequently, OHS ignores non-work factors that create or magnify hazards at work. For example, many Cargill workers (especially the migrant workers) have inadequate (i.e. crowded) housing, in part, due to the low wages paid by the employer. This increases the risk of COVID transmission at home which, in turn, magnifies the risk of an outbreak at the worksite. Similarly, the plant is located 7km outside town. Workers are forced to carpool because there is no public transit. Again, this factor magnifies the risk of transmission. Addressing these issues is necessary to protect workers’ health but falls outside the domain of OHS.

Public health officials, on the other hand, do deal with non-work factors. But they have little power to direct change (e.g. establishment of public transit, provision of adequate housing). Further, public health officials are not necessarily well versed in job design and employment dynamics. A lack of experience with specific industries can mean public health officials may not be able to counter employers’ claims that employers are doing everything they can. Culturally, many non-labour experts have difficulty grasping that employers explicitly and intentionally trade workers’ health for profit. Further, while commenting on housing and transportation patterns is legitimate discourse in the context of trying to reduce the spread of a disease, this discourse essentially gives the employer a ready-made argument to dispute workers’ compensation claims (i.e. the injury did not arise from or occur during work), allowing them to evade responsibility.

The third, and likely most important, failing is the political direction under which both sets of officials work. The Kenney government has sent very clear signals from the beginning that its priority is the uninterrupted flow of meat products in the market. At the end of March, Kenney chastised federal meat inspectors for not entering a smaller meat processing plant north of Calgary due to COVID concerns and threatened to send in provincial authorities to do the inspectors’ jobs. At the time, he spoke about the importance of maintaining the meat supply. Throughout the emerging situation at Cargill and JBS, Kenney and his cabinet ministers have repeatedly downplayed safety concerns.

The political decision to prioritize production over safety sends a clear signal to the employer that they can get away with half measures. And it sends a message, either directly or indirectly, to enforcement officers at OHS and AHS to not take actions that will unduly antagonize Cargill or JBS. And, now that the situation has exploded into a crisis, Premier Jason Kenney continues to downplay its significance. For example, on April 22, Kenney highlighting that only two of 200 meat processing plants in the province are affected, calling this a success. This claim is disingenuous, given that these two plants, which have over 4,500 workers combined and produce 70% of Canada’s beef supply, dwarf all the other plants in the province. The system’s existing structural weaknesses were amplified by a brazen and irresponsible political strategy to protect the meatpacking employers.

Worse yet, much of the government messaging implies it is the workers’ fault for carpooling and living in crowded conditions. They forget these are vulnerable newcomers to Canada who are paid very little to do difficult work and who do not choose their working and living conditions. They willfully ignore reports of workers who tested positive for COVID being told to come to work by the employer during their quarantine period as long as they were not showing symptoms.


The COVID outbreaks in these plants, like all workplace injuries, were mostly preventable. Instead of looking out for workers’ health and safety, Alberta’s government decided to prioritize production over safety. OHS officials were unwilling to step in and correct the power imbalance between employers and workers when they had the chance. The lack of action left the workers only one recourse: walk out from work, which is what hundreds of JBS workers did.

OHS has opened investigations into the safety protocols at each plant. While many labour advocates are calling for fatality investigations or even criminal prosecutions, it is unlikely that Cargill managers will face meaningful sanctions. After all, OHS green-lit Cargill’s safety efforts, declaring them adequate. Given this prior involvement, it is difficult to feel confident in the OHS investigation.

It is useful to remember that Canada’s contemporary OHS laws were the product of workers taking action into their own hands when governments wouldn’t protect them. This situation at JBS and Cargill once again demonstrates what happens when an OHS system fails so dramatically to protect worker safety: many workers are injured, some die, and the rest rise up.

-- Jason Foster and Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Some thoughts on work and COVID

So we’re a month in to COVID-19 here in Alberta. I have some preliminary thoughts on work during an extended period of crisis. Some are general, others are more specific to Athabasca University.

Planning matters

As far as I can tell, most of the public sector had no effective plan for a pandemic. This is weird because pandemic planning was all the rage in 2004/05 (post SARS). The most public example of this has been the federal government’s bumbling rollout of enhanced income support. To the fed’s credit, they have at least tried and appear to be succeeding (likely because of their hard-working staff).

By contrast, Alberta’s response was completely inadequate, probably by design (to drive costs to the feds). A question for labour market policy wonks going forward is whether some form of basic income might be much more functional (and fairer and more efficient) than the collection of income support programs currently on offer.

Workers matter

My own institution had zero plan and its response (despite bumps) has largely been successful due to hard work, mostly by the lowest paid employees. The importance of poorly compensated workers in managing the crisis is evident everywhere (e.g., hospital cleaners, grocery store clerks, delivery people). Whether these workers can convert this momentary glimpse into their importance into meaningful improvements in their working conditions and job security going forward is an open question.

Certainly they have stored up some social capital that they may be able to use to demand things like a living wage and job security. Employers get this potential source of power and some have tried to undercut it with hazard pay. Galen Weston Jr. giving grocery workers an extra $16 a day to risk their lives won’t turn him into a folk hero. But this hazard pay will be used as a "good corporate citizen" fig leaf the next time exploitative working conditions or price fixing hits the media.

Workers don’t actually matter to employers

My employer has focused on ensuring staff can be productive at home and quickly rolled out laptops and spiffy new software. But it has done little to find out about and resolve broader issues associated with home work. People don’t have adequate workspaces so are becoming injured. Workloads have risen. A paltry payment of $50/month (before tax!) to cover extra costs was rolled out a month in, even though that is less than what regular home workers get.

Last week, the president announced that anyone who can’t work full-time from home (presumably due to conflicting demands, such as childcare) will soon have to choose between their job and their other commitments. So basically, “Ladies, thanks for helping us out during the crisis; tough luck about having kids.” (But, remember, we’re OneAU folks!). I didn’t think morale could sink lower or people could be angrier at the boss, but there you go.

Managers add little value

What I’ve seen among my colleagues is basically people are working hard and using their initiative to solve problems, even while working at home and able to play hooky. For the most part, they are doing fine and right by the people they serve.

Managers have added little value to this effort. Indeed, most of the managing that is happening is actually counter-productive, performative management with unnecessary surveillance and meetings, mostly to give managers something to do (since most seem unable or unwilling to make decisions).

Conservatives suck

Yeah, I know, profs are supposed to be even-handed and this just feeds into the narrative that we’re all lefties. But looking at the evidence (specifically at Jason Kenney and Alberta’s UCP), its clear that conservatives are just out to benefit the wealthy (specifically oil and gas companies via tax cuts for, loan guarantees to, and direct investing in a dying industry) while destroying the public services people rely on.

The government’s attack on the doctors continues DURING A FUCKING PANDEMIC and doctors are publicly making plans to reduce services and leave the province. Educational assistants have been laid off, just when they are most necessary to help students adjust to home schooling. Other public servants have been given a reprieve during the pandemic but layoffs and wage rollbacks will continue thereafter. 

My own institution has been told to reduce expenditures by 20% in this budget year (which could mean 300 layoffs from a full-time staff of 750, basically causing the university to collapse) at the same time as enrollments are surging (because we’re uniquely able to educate during a pandemic). 

I imagine this all makes ideological sense to conservatives, but the practical impact of their shitty public policy (backed by constant lying, corruption, and childish behaviour) clearly tells the rest of us that they and their war-time posturing need to go. Probably forever.

Labour is becoming bolder

The inadequacies of neoliberal policies (and the modest skills and bad instincts of conservative politicians) are emboldening workers and union leaders. I expect a wave of strikes (probably wildcats) will hit Alberta as COVID-19 recedes and conservatives push forward with more cuts. Greater class consciousness is a huge gain from COVID-19. An interesting question will be whether this class consciousness will extend to white-collar workers.

So, with that off my chest (and I feel WAY better for it), I’ll go back to trying to sort out myriad student woes while trying not to lose my sanity.

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Alberta's labour law response to COVID-19

This post was previously published on the Canadian Law of Work Forum.

Alberta has enacted several temporary changes to its Employment Standards in response to COVID-19, including expanding unpaid leaves and making it easier for employers to alter working conditions and lay off workers. Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board has also established some preliminary guidance regarding the compensability of injuries and illnesses caused by COVID-19. Alberta has also delayed and partly waived workers’ compensation premiums for employers.

Employment Standards

On March 5, the COVID-19 Leave Regulation came into effect, which provided 14 days of unpaid leave if a worker was under quarantine for COVID-19. There was no requirement for a medical note or for 90 days of service to access this leave, conditions which are standard requirements to access Alberta’s 2017 provisions for unpaid job-protected leave under s.53.97 of the Employment Standards Code.

The COVID-19 Regulation also waived the one-week notice of return requirement. Workers remained entitled to the 16 weeks of unpaid leave for illness, injury or quarantine, under s.53.97 of the Code with the usual service and medical note restrictions.

On April 5, 2020, additional and temporary changes to Employment Standards were enacted. These changes were authorized by a Ministerial Orders and included an unpaid, job-protected leave for employees who must care for children, either due to school or daycare closures or illness or self-isolation of family members. No service or medical note is required.

The government also waived employers’ obligations to:
  • Provide 24 hours of written notice of shift changes.
  • Provide two weeks of notice to changes of work schedules for those under overtime averaging agreements.
  • Provide workers and unions with 8 to 16 weeks of notice of terminations of 50 or more employees (individual notice or pay in lieu entitlements remain unchanged).
Employers may now also:
  • Temporarily lay off employees for up to 120 days (instead of up to 60 days), retroactive to March 17 if the lay off was related to COVID-19.
  • More easily seek variances of and exceptions to other employment standards (related to COVID-19) from the government.
In effect, these changes allow employers to more easily and quickly alter working conditions and layoff employees.

Workers’ Compensation
Alberta’s Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) issued some preliminary advice about the compensability of injuries caused by COVID-19. The crux seems to be that the WCB has determined that most instances of COVID-19 are not work-related.

The WCB’s Policy 03-01, Application 3 (Occupational; Diseases) addresses the question of work-relatedness of infectious diseases by applying a three-part test, Infectious diseases are eligible for compensation if:

(a) The nature of employment involves sufficient exposure to the source of inflection, and

(b) The nature of employment is shown to be the cause of the condition, or

(c) The nature of employment creates an increased risk of exposure for the worker.

Although there are several ways to interpret this test, the most likely interpretation appears to that a claim must meet (a) and then either of (b) or (c). In its March 26 guidance to employers, the WCB asserted that each claim is judged upon its merits but then opined:
A claim is likely to be accepted if a worker contracts the illness and is performing what the province deems to be an “essential service” that puts them in regular contact with the general public. A worker will also likely be covered in the event of a widespread outbreak at their place of work.
Alberta’s list of essential services is extensive. This likely extends the scope of accepted claims beyond the WCB’s March 9 position that accepted claims would likely be mostly restricted to health-care workers. The potentially large number of COVID-19 claims, particularly high-cost claims associated with fatalities, may place some pressure on Alberta’s Accident Fund going forward.

Alberta has also deferred 2020 WCB premiums until 2021. And private-sector employers with $10 million or less in insurable earnings will have 50% of the 2020 WCB premiums waived. This waiver is estimated to cost $350 million and will be paid by the government (not taken from the surplus of the WCB’s Accident Fund).

-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

PSE Bargaining in Alberta: Some initial thoughts

The vast majority of collective agreements in Alberta’s post-secondary system will be up for renewal by July 1. The bargaining context is not great and includes:
  • two cuts to government grants in six months, which have triggering massive layoffs in at some institutions,
  • a recently announced expenditure reduction mandate (possibly in the range of 20%), which will likely result in further layoffs (although it may be on hold until May),
  • a tanking economy, 
  • a government intent on rolling back public-sector wages, and
  • legislation (Bill 21) last fall that allows the government to impose binding and secret bargaining mandates on PSE Boards of Governors.
While employer bargaining mandates are secret, the early pattern that is emerging is for one-year deals with a wage rollback.

Although every bargaining relationship is a bit different, PSE employers basically have two levers to get what they want in bargaining:
  1. Layoffs threat: An employer could use the spectre of layoffs to pressurize a union to accept wage and language rollbacks (e.g., “agree to a 10% wage cut within 14 days or we’ll sack 10% of your members”). This “pick-your-poison” strategy is designed to trigger internal dissent within the union. 
  2. 24-Hour Lockout: Employers may push bargaining to impasse in order to impose a short lockout, followed by a return to work under the employer’s last offer. This would allow employers to impose rollbacks, unless the union can mount a strike. 
While these levers look powerful, they aren't overwhelmingly so.

Layoffs threats at the bargaining table are very provocative. An employer that makes such threats runs the risk of radicalizing the members of the union (essentially creating a viable strike threat where none existed). The leverage generated by a layoff threat can also be reduced by the union inoculating its members (“The employer is going to do X, our response is Y.”).

Further, layoff threats (while real) are not easy for institutions to implement. In my faculty association, it costs the employer approximately 18 months of salary to lay off association members. So, a layoff imposes an immediate financial penalty on the employer.

Further, the work done by a laid-off staff member (which contributes to revenue generation) must be either forgone or done by someone else. My experience with past rounds of layoffs is that the survivors are often unwilling and unable to pick up the extra work caused by layoffs, In fact, the survivors often stop working as hard as they previously were because of the sense of betrayal caused by the layoffs.

Now, the government and senior PSE administrators probably couldn’t care less about the fate of individual workers or organizational morale. But they don't have any interest in seeing institutions obviously failing because of layoffs they imposed. So, while layoff threats are real and can be powerful, they are not as powerful as everyone imagines.

Similarly, the threat of a 24-hour lockout is easily overblown. A credible strike threat by a union means a 24-hour lockout is not an effective employer strategy: the union can just strike to avoid going back under the employer’s terms. Further, triggering a work stoppage (thus compromising students’ access to education) will look bad on the employer if the union chooses to weaponize such behaviour in the realm of public opinion.

Developing the processes and membership buy-in necessary to have a credible strike threat will be a challenge from some faculty associations. Sophisticated administrators (and unsophisticated faculty association leaders) have worked hard to frame PSE labour relations as a technical exercise, rather than as a political struggle, over the years.

An aggressive government egging on PSE employers is an opportunity for these faculty association to engage in some rapid re-framing of labour relations. And the bargaining delays caused by COVID-19 give these associations the time to lay the political and practical ground work necessary for them to have a credible strike threat.

A credible strike threat also ups the cost to government of imposing cuts on post-secondary institutions. This can, in turn, blunt or redirect government policy. For example, if the public-sector is rocked by strikes and service disruptions and government approval is plummeting because its budgeting assumptions were obviously ludicrous and are not generating the jobs that were promised, a low-tax strategy may suddenly look less attractive than, say, developing an adequate tax-base to afford the public services voters desire.

-- Bob Barnetson