Floundering oil prices and the shutdown of much of the economy has caused oilsands companies to lay off workers and delay projects.
Jay Bueckert, regional director for the Christian Labour Association in Fort McMurray, said he takes dozens of calls every day from people who are desperate for work.
“This is really having an impact on a lot of people’s lives,” Bueckert said.
Within the CLAC alone, at least 500 oilsands workers have been laid off in order to scale back operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suncor and Syncrude have laid off all non-essential workers and delayed projects to try and minimize the number of employees on site.
Because employees under CLAC are contractors, they’re not paid during the layoffs, Bueckert said.
“Unfortunately, when it’s a construction project, you have to actually be there doing the construction to get paid for it.”
Syncrude’s shutdown maintenance work, which had been expected to create 850 union jobs, has been indefinitely postponed.
“For a lot of these folks, they were just getting back to work doing some of these projects,” said Bueckert. “I think it is quite devastating for a few.”
The oil industry has been doubly hammered by COVID-19 and the steep decrease in oil prices. It has had “a major impact on cash flow for these companies,” Bueckert said.
Terry Parker, executive director of Canada’s Building Trades Unions, said many workers expecting to work on oilsands shutdown projects won’t be needed soon.
He commended the companies for scaling back to keep workers safe but noted it has created an “economic disaster” for them.
He said across Alberta workers are looking at about 10,000 jobs being postponed from shutdown work.
People have been waiting for about five months for these jobs to come up, he said.
“We want to make sure our members are gaining a paycheque, but we also want to make sure things are done right and our members go home safely to their family and friends at the end of their shift,” Parker said.
Parker said some of the shutdown work can be pushed off for about one year, but some of the work needs to be maintained to keep the plant functioning, and that’s what companies are assessing right now.
People in Fort McMurray are experiencing a ripple effect from the decrease in oilsands work.
Frank Farberman, who owns Direct Workwear with his wife in Fort McMurray, sells safety gear for oilsands workers. Farberman said they’ve had to lay off some staff.
“There’s a lot less people working and families are hurting,” said Farberman. “This town has just been put through too much.”
Farberman said his family-run business will try to help people if they can.