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When COVID-19 strikes workplaces, what does real transparency look like? Why disclosure is rare, but revealing

Posted: March 19, 2021

(March 18, 2021)

By: Tavia Grant, The Globe and Mail

Workers head to the main security gate at Maple Lodge Farms’s poultry-processing plant in Brampton, Ont. Throughout the pandemic, the facility has kept running even as Brampton became of Canada’s top COVID-19 hotspots. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The production line at Maple Lodge Farms in Brampton, Ont. – the largest chicken-processing facility in the country – didn’t used to look this way. On every shift, workers don personal protective equipment that includes gloves, aprons, masks and face shields. Start times have been staggered to allow for physical distancing. Posters tagged with the line “We Feed Canadians” advise workers to spend less than 10 minutes in cramped quarters like locker rooms. In the main cafeteria, new turnstiles only allow staff in and out once they’ve sanitized their hands, and Plexiglas walls divide diners at each table.

Even with all the precautions, the family-owned company has had 130 of its 2,600 workers test positive for COVID-19; two have died. In January alone, the company recorded 21 new cases of the virus at its Ontario operations, an increase in lockstep with rising case counts in the communities where it operates. (Its Ontario facilities include a second processing plant in Mississauga, plus a distribution centre and three hatcheries; it also has facilities in Atlantic Canada.)

Maple Lodge lets employees know about COVID-19 infections through bulletins, letters, TV monitors and in-person talks. And unlike the vast majority of large-scale employers in Ontario, it opted early in the pandemic to share regular infection bulletins with the public, too.

“We believe that one of the single most powerful weapons to combat COVID-19 is information – proven facts and advice – so we can protect our workers, communities and families,” says Carol Gardin, a member of Maple Lodge’s emergency response team and its director of corporate affairs.

An employee heads for the staff entrance at Maple Lodge Farms. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Maple Lodge has deep roots in the Brampton area – the May family has worked the same plot of land since 1834, and it is still family-owned to this day. “Be honest” is listed as one of its corporate values. But its commitment to transparency is a stark departure from most large employers in Ontario and Quebec, which don’t publicly state where COVID-19 is spreading at work.

Few disclose how many of their workers are falling ill or the effectiveness of measures meant to keep them safe. The ones that do are mostly retailers, including Loblaw, Metro, Petro-Canada and the LCBO, all of which regularly release where and when an employee has tested positive. Most health officials won’t say, either. Last week, Peel Public Health ordered Amazon to shut a Brampton warehouse after 240 workers tested positive recently. But neither the health unit nor the company, will say how many workers in other Amazon facilities in the region have contracted the virus.

Though ministries in both provinces have acknowledged that workplace outbreaks are driving transmission – they accounted for 24 per cent of outbreaks in Ontario as of February – they still refuse to publish any detailed data on where they’re occurring. (Ontario’s ministries of health and labour suggest contacting all 34 local public-health units for more information.) As a result, it’s hard to assess which workers are hardest hit, where to target preventative measures and to assess which health protocols are most effective.

With new, more contagious variants of COVID-19 raising the likelihood of rapid spread through workplaces, it’s all the more crucial this information is disclosed.

“Now is the moment to throw absolutely everything we’ve got at this pandemic, and transparency helps to guide action,” says Joe Cressy, chair of the Toronto Board of Health, adding that shared data can provide the road map to prevention.

“By drawing attention to workplace transmission, we hold employers accountable to ensure they are practising the best infection and prevention recommendations and adhering to them,” he says. “But we also hold governments accountable.”

COVID-19 has led Maple Lodge Farms to beef up their safeguards. Employees use hand-sanitizing machines like the ones at top left; signs throughout the plant remind staff to wear masks and keep apart from others; and on the production line, right, personal protective gear including gloves, aprons, masks and face shields is required.

At the cafeteria entrance, left, a turnstile lets people enter only after pressing the spout to sanitize their hands. Inside, physically distanced eating areas come with towels and bottles of cleaner. PHOTOS COURTESY OF MAPLE LODGE FARMS

To the west, meanwhile, provincial governments in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia have taken a different approach: listing outbreaks by specific employer name and location.

“From Day 1, we have committed to being as transparent as possible with Albertans, while still protecting patient privacy,” says Tom McMillan, assistant director of communications at Alberta Health. “Ongoing outbreak reporting is a vital part of keeping Albertans informed.”

In Alberta, the three largest workplace outbreaks have all been in meat-processing facilities, which have been particularly susceptible to COVID-19, in part because employees tend to work indoors, in close quarters on production lines. Those outbreaks include 683 cases at JBS Foods Canada’s plant in Brooks, and 509 at Olymel’s Red Deer pork-processing plant.

But the most severe outbreak to date was at Cargill’s beef slaughterhouse in High River last spring, with 937 cases and several deaths – making it the largest outbreak of COVID-19 in the country, period. At the time, workers told The Globe and Mail that Cargill hadn’t told them about rising caseloads or where in the plant positive cases were occurring, adding to their stress and damaging trust with their employer. (Cargill wasn’t the only company with worried workers; several Amazon employees in Ontario have told The Globe they were kept in the dark about details of outbreaks at the company’s warehouses.)

Both Cargill and the province’s health authority faced criticism over their handling of the outbreak, which saw the virus spread from the plant to local communities.

Over the past year, transparency has drawn attention to unsafe working conditions and forced accountability – not just in meat-packing plants, but also in long-term care, when the staggering number of deaths inside these facilities prompted increased scrutiny. The same happened when it came to illness among migrant farm workers, which saw federal and provincial governments boost funding and inspections.

In Portland, an employee of the grocery chain Fred Meyer adds a sheet with information about COVID-19 vaccines to groceries ordered by a homebound senior. GILLIAN FLACCUS/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

South of the border, in Oregon, the state’s health authority publishes weekly updates on workplace outbreaks by employer name, location and case numbers, showing in near-real time where transmissions are happening.

The Oregon Health Authority says naming employers has helped people avoid infection, and enabled workers to access resources and protections from their employers and public-health agencies. It has also helped reduce the stigma around catching the virus, minimize rumours and curb misinformation. “A consistent, transparent statewide approach to reporting COVID-19 cases in workplaces gives Oregonians more information to help people avoid the risks of COVID-19 infections,” it said in a statement.

The OHA only discloses workplaces with more than five cases and more than 30 employees, and won’t publicize an outbreak that might identify individual workers. It currently lists clusters in correctional institutions, Amazon and Walmart facilities, and several hospitals. Its weekly updates also give deeper insights into what’s happening, noting that settings where people work in proximity – such as on farms and in jails – face additional challenges when it comes to controlling the spread, and that people of colour are overrepresented in those jobs, meaning they’re also overrepresented among those infected.

In Ontario, the provincial government does not publish any of this information, leaving it up to public-health units to disclose. But most of them don’t name names, citing privacy issues – even though the province’s privacy commissioner has said that as long as individuals aren’t named, identifying companies “may serve an important public-health purpose.”

“Transparency around workplace outbreaks is important” to show where transmission is occurring and where prevention efforts should be targeted, says Nitin Mohan, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Western University, provided that individual identities are protected.

The single most effective measure for Ontario now, he adds, is paid sick leave. “If we had provincial paid sick leave, this wouldn’t be a conversation at all. Because in theory, you would avoid any situation where there are outbreaks.”

Employees at a for-profit long-term care facility in Toronto look out the window during a protest to demand their employer do more to keep staff safe. CARLOS OSORIO/REUTERS

Recent data for Toronto show nearly half of COVID-19 cases are among people living on lower incomes, while almost 80 per cent of cases are racialized Torontonians – both vastly overrepresented relative to their populations. In January, Canada’s largest city started disclosing more information on workplace outbreaks. The majority have been in businesses deemed essential, such as construction and warehousing. Many of the most recent outbreaks have been in the food processing sector, including Johnvince Foods, where an estimated 83 employees tested positive as of last month. Dimpflmeier Bakery has had more than 50 cases, and Belmont Meats 94.

“Connect the dots: low-income workers, a disproportionate number of them racialized, working on the front lines, are getting sick at a higher rate,” says Mr. Cressy, who is also a Toronto city councillor. “And tragically, these are the same workers who don’t have access to paid sick leave.”

In Ontario alone, there have been more than 18,000 accepted COVID-19-related claims, according to the Workplace Health and Safety Board, most of them from staff in long-term care homes, hospitals and farms. At least 34 Ontario workers have died (based on accepted WSIB claims) – deaths that might have been prevented with targeted measures and appropriate policies, including, according to experts, paid sick leave, greater enforcement and oversight of health protocols, improved ventilation, and rapid testing.

At the national level, the Public Health Agency of Canada has been collecting data on workplace outbreaks. According to those figures, meat-packing plants have seen the highest COVID-19 case numbers. As of March 1, more than 4,750 workers have been infected at these facilities, with at least 14 reported deaths – the highest of any industrial setting. Farms and warehouses have also seen big numbers: nearly 2,200 infections have tested in agriculture, and almost 1,500 in warehouses and distribution centres.

PHAC’s outbreak monitoring data – based on provincial public-health websites and media scans – have limitations. It’s impossible to know how many infections were acquired at work as opposed to at home or in the community. Outbreak definitions vary by province, and infection rates can’t be broken down by age, gender or race. PHAC is, however, one of the few sources for outbreak trends at the national level.

The lack of transparency is happening both externally, with the public, and internally, within organizations.

In nearly a year of reporting on vulnerable workers in sectors from beef processing plants to migrant farm workers, warehouse workers and factory employees, many have told The Globe they were not clearly informed of COVID-19 outbreaks – where they were occurring and how many people were getting sick. The dearth of information added to their anxiety, with many saying they felt unable to take proper safety precautions because they didn’t know what was going on.

Under Canadian legislation, workers have the right to know about health and safety matters, and the right to refuse unsafe work.

“There is no public interest justification for not being absolutely transparent about where the spread is happening, and how it’s happening,” says Natalie Mehra, executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition.

Maple Lodge’s Brampton processing plant has had several COVID-19 cases through the pandemic, linked either to community spread or in-plant transmission. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Maple Lodge sent out its first COVID-19 bulletin to employees more than a year ago, on March 5, 2020, informing them it had formed an emergency response task force and that it was vital they practise good hygiene. “We really identified early on that having people know where to go to get good sources of the truth was going to be really important,” says Vanessa White, a member of the company’s emergency pandemic response team and its chief human resources officer. That same month, it posted its first statement on its website about safety measures.

By April, the plant had its first COVID-19 cases. Maple Lodge didn’t immediately publish those numbers, says Ms. White, because it was focused on keeping staff, the union and public-health officials apprised of the new developments, and tracing contacts of the infected employees. But in the following weeks, it posted the figures and has done so regularly since then. “The concept of countering rumours and making sure people had good, reliable information was 100 per cent behind the way we chose to communicate,” Ms. White says.

When a long-serving Maple Lodge employee died from COVID-19-related complications last spring, Ms. White says it was devastating. “Up until that moment, I think we all thought that if we just worked enough hours, if we just spent enough on PPE, if we trained people enough and communicated enough,” she says. “But that was the moment when it really hit home that we can’t control this. We can just do the best we can for our employees and our customers every day. But there are going to be days that just won’t be enough.”

Recently, the company posted on its website that a second employee – a 30-year veteran of Maple Lodge who contracted the virus in December – had died. “It has been an incomprehensible loss for their families, friends and colleagues,” the company stated.

Ms. White says being open about what’s happening inside its facilities helps to build trust and buy-in from staff. For each positive case, nearby co-workers are informed in person, so they have a chance to ask questions and discuss possible scenarios, and to ensure they don’t hear about cases through rumours or false information.

The company also follows up with physical letters – it has sent thousands so far – with details about what happened and what to do, such as reminders on the proper use of PPE. “What we were trying to achieve was that they didn’t have to go elsewhere to look for information,” says Ms. White, because “they were getting it directly from us, and the same with our customers.”

Whenever there’s been a case of suspected workplace spread, the company has adjusted operations – for instance, temporarily suspending a production line to investigate a cluster, and spacing out and reassigning lockers, and limiting time spent in the room to avoid bottlenecks at shift change. Last month, it tested 30 per cent of its Brampton employees to rule out asymptomatic transmission; all tested negative. (The province funded the tests, and the company paid for the cost of administering them.)

So far, two Maple Lodge Farms employees who came down with COVID-19 have died, the company says. FRED LUM/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents about 1,030 workers at its Brampton facility, says that though there have been some disagreements, communication between the company, the union and its workers has been good, with close collaboration between the parties to solve problems.

The UFCW’s Tim Deelstra says the union would like to see more distancing on factory production lines, possible slowdowns in production and a pay bump for workers on the front lines. But he lauds Maple Lodge’s regular updates. “This includes continued discussions around workplace safety and protocols, as well as disclosure of positive cases and actions taken,” he says.

As for sick pay, Maple Lodge employees who must self-isolate are paid at their regular rate for up to 14 days. Any workers who have to miss work to get tested for COVID-19 get paid, too.

In an update this month on its website, Maple Lodge says it is working with other meat processors to “share knowledge and develop best practices.” Ms. White says those include talking to staff directly and keeping in close touch with public-health officials.

“Listen to your employees, listen to the union, if you have one, listen to the Ministry of Labour and anyone else who is a key stakeholder in your business,” she says. “Take the time to have the dialogue and help them understand your business and engage them in your solutions – especially in crisis.”

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