Long commute, huge rewards: Alberta oilpatch changing N.L. labour force

Three times each week, a chartered aircraft flies from Alberta to Newfoundland, ferrying workers involved in one of the longest commutes in the country.

Three times each week, a chartered aircraft flies from Alberta to airports in Newfoundland, ferrying trades workers involved in one of the longest commutes in the country.

Thousands of labourers from Newfoundland and Labrador commute regularly to oil industry jobs in Fort McMurray and other Alberta communities. ((CBC))

It'salso a labour phenomenon that is changing the face of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., the largest construction company working in Alberta's oilpatch at Fort McMurray, estimates that about 20 per cent of the employees working for its contractors — as many as 1,700 people — are commuters from Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We have 25 different trades on site and all of those have representatives from the island," said company vice-president Lynn Zeidler.

"They'll fly in for 20 days of work and then they'll fly back home for eight days of rest, and then they'll repeat that cycle again," she said.

The workers for CNRL — who stay in camps, where food, board and travel are all fully paid — are just one component of a widespread commuting trend that has been underway for years, but which is still gaining in size.

Estimates vary on just how many labourers maintain a permanent residence in Newfoundland and Labrador and fly to Alberta to work in oil-related jobs.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government says as many as 10,000 people may be travelling for work out west, working for companies like Syncrude, Suncor and Flint Energy.

Human Resources Minister Shawn Skinner said the government is trying to learn more about the widespread migration of labour to Alberta. ((CBC))

Workers are drawn for jobs that often start above $100,000 per year, not including overtime. The work is tough, but the financial rewards can be astounding, in part because workers have little opportunity to spend cash at campsites and overtime is commonly offered.

Memorial University geography professor Keith Storey said Newfoundlanders have always been a transient workforce, willing to move where employment is available. However, he said the past pales in comparison to what is now being seen.

"If what we know about wages earned in Alberta is accurate, there's a very large income flow into the province from people who are working away on this kind of rotational basis," he said.

Millions into communities

With local trades union estimating that 4,000 of its members are commuting to and from Alberta, conservative estimates peg the amount of money flowing to scores of Newfoundland and Labrador communities in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Shawn Skinner, Newfoundland and Labrador's human resources minister, said the provincial government is trying to grasp the phenomenon and its broader social implications.

"We need to be able to capture that information, quantify it [and] see what kind of an effect it's having on us socially, from a family structure perspective and from an economic and financial perspective in the community when they come back," Skinner said.

Lloyd Tucker, a St. Anthony construction worker who has been travelling to Alberta for eight years, told CBC News that the work pays well but comes at a heavy personal cost.

"Every day seems to be getting worse," said Tucker, 63, while waiting for a charter flight in Deer Lake. "It's not a good thing to me… nothing seems to be moving on the island any more."