Ucluelet’s major fish processing plant, Ucluelet Harbour Seafoods (UHS), re-opened its facility last week with solid COVID-19 precautionary measures put in motion.
By sheer luck, said general manager Dave Dawson, the fish plant shut down its operations on March 14 to accommodate about five weeks worth of maintenance. It fired up again for the 2020 season on April 22.
UHS processes a couple hundred thousand pounds of fish each day. They are one of the region’s largest employers with 250 people on the payroll, including: line production, maintenance, engineering and administration staff. That does not factor in the mariners on the fishing boats.
“We know one case of COVID-19 can change the whole season,” said Dawson. “People are our biggest assets and we’ve always said this in our company. We want to protect them and we want to keep them safe.”
Last week, a meat-processing plant in southern Alberta temporarily shut down after one worker died because of COVID-19 and over 500 cases of the virus were linked to the plant.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief health medical health officer, said in an April 21 news conference that not all of the reported cases are people who work at the plant and that many of the cases live in surrounding communities.
UHS personnel clerk Alison Mcgee lives in Port Alberni. She currently takes a charter bus with other UHS workers to get to and from her shift at the Ucluelet fish plant.
Mcgee said the UHS Port bus follows BC Transit COVID-19 safety measures, such as limiting passenger capacity to support physical distancing. UHS has taken additional precautions; employees are assigned seats for the duration of the season. Facemasks and gloves are being provided—when available— and UHS is taking temperature readings before each employee boards to ensure no one has a fever.
There are about 25 regular riders on the Port bus per shift. Day shift workers will be assigned to even numbered seats and night shift staff will be assigned to odd numbered seats. The bus company will disinfect the bus after each leg of round trip.
“Employees are concerned about each other and their families. We have had complete co-operation and understanding,” said Mcgee.
UHS line workers are now separated with a “spit guard” as part of management’s COVID-19 safety plan. (Submitted photo)
Ucluelet operations manager Ben Beens said his team is excited, but very cautious to be working again.
“Proudly, our team has taken on this responsibility and fully engaged with the new way of doing business. We will continue to fight for the safe health of our staff and community,” said Beens.
UHS has laid out dozens of new COVID-19 protocols to keep the processing plant crew safe. When possible, notes Beens, staff from different communities will be separated. He said there are new plastic “sneeze” guards in between workers on the processing line. Table and chairs have been removed from the lunchroom to minimize crowding and smoke/coffee breaks will be staggered to reduce the number of employees per break.
“If anyone is sick, even allergy symptoms, we are telling them to stay home,” Beens said.
Fish processing is a food and agriculture service provider and is considered an essential service in British Columbia during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are helping feed the world right now. The federal government has asked us to continue operation because we are a food processor,” said Dawson.
Ucluelet mayor Mayco Noel told the Westerly the demand for ground fish and hake is low at the moment.
“But, obviously, I have to be optimistic about an industry that can give jobs to a couple dozen people in the community,” said Noel.
Personnel clerk Mcgee said UHS needs to fill over 100 positions.
Next week, we will look at why UHS may need to bring in Temporary Foreign Workers to keep the plant in business during the COVID-19 crisis.