‘Ottawa’ Thousands of Oilsands Workers are Losing Pay While Fort McMurray Fires Shut Sites
While wages are continuing for many employees of oilsands companies forced off the job by Fort McMurray wildfires, thousands of tradespeople hired by contractors are off the payroll.
“It’s certainly an economic hardship. People have bills to pay, people make plans around when they expect the work will take place,” Warren Fraleigh, executive director of the Building Trades of Alberta, said Friday.
“Folks who have had a fairly lean winter (were) waiting for this work.”
He estimated 2,000 to 4,000 members of the trade union umbrella group lost their jobs after many oilsands operations were shut down or scaled back because of fire safety concerns.
These tradespeople are generally called in for assignments and aren’t guaranteed work, Fraleigh said.
“Our guys have the opportunity to be laid off and seek other employment in other parts of Alberta,” he said.
“Normally in our industry, when folks are laid off they access employment insurance if they’re eligible.”
The biggest operations were the turnarounds underway at Suncor and Syncrude facilities, which needed large numbers of pipefitters, boilermakers, welders, scaffolders and other trades.
Many of them have likely returned to homes outside Alberta until the fires die down.
Jobs will probably become available again when the situation stabilizes this spring or summer because the turnarounds still need to be finished, Fraleigh said.
“It’s not like these guys won’t get paid for the work they expected. It’s just that it won’t happen in the timeframe they expected.”
On Sunday, authorities in Canada announced the reopening of eight shuttered work camps south of the wildfire-ravaged oil town of Fort McMurray, paving the way for energy firms to restart production.
Municipal authorities announced Sunday evening a “phased re-entry” for camps near Nexen’s Long Lake and ConocoPhillips’s Surmont facilities, both of which have stopped production due to the fire.
“Assessment work to return … camps to operations may begin immediately,” the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which oversees Fort McMurray, said in a statement.
The municipality is also reopening camps near Enbridge Inc’s Cheecham terminal, which the company has said was returning to full service.
It is not immediately clear when any of the oil facilities themselves will be fully operational. A ConocoPhillips spokesman said the company does not yet have a timeline. Nexen and Enbridge did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The inferno in northern Alberta, which by Sunday evening was more than 500,000 hectares, has caused the evacuation of Fort McMurray’s entire population of nearly 90,000 since it began early this month.
It also caused the evacuation of oil facilities and work camps around the city and triggered a prolonged shutdown that has cut Canadian oil output by a million barrels a day.
Producers have since signaled a gradual increase in operations as rain and cold weather helped firefighters beat back the flames.
The announced re-opening of the work camps came two days after the municipality lifted the evacuation orders on Suncor Energy Inc and Syncrude oil sites and some nearby work camps north of Fort McMurray.
It is unclear when either will resume full production, though Suncor has said a limited number of staff will be back at some of its sites on Monday at the earliest and that all will return “in a phased manner over the next few weeks.”
About 3,600 of Syncrude’s 4,800 employees are off work because of fire danger, but they’ll continue to be paid until they can return to their positions, company spokesman Will Gibson said.
However, contractors are only being paid if they’re still providing supplies or services, he said. He didn’t know whether they’re compensating unemployed staff.
“We have shut down our operations. We’re not making oil right now,” he said.
“We have made our decision for our staff because we recognize they have delivered for us in extraordinary circumstances. Individual (contracting) companies have to make that choice on their own.”
Suncor is also paying all its employees during the fire, although the company couldn’t say how many workers are off the job.
Contractor PCL Construction is taking a similar stance for its hundreds of oilsands staff.
“We are also working with our tradespeople employed under collective agreements to access ‘shortage of work’ assistance until we can get them back to the job site,” spokesman Shane Jones said in an emailed statement.
Fraleigh said he hasn’t seen such a disaster during almost 30 years in Alberta.
“This is about the craziest event we could ever have imagined.”
With files from Reuters