Hundreds laid off, thousands of jobs delayed in Alberta oilsands

Floundering oil prices and the shutdown of much of the economy have caused oilsands companies to lay off workers and delay projects. 

Companies delaying projects, laying off contractors during COVID-19 pandemic

A mining shovel fills a haul vehicle at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Floundering oil prices and the shutdown of much of the economy have caused oilsands companies to lay off workers and delay projects. 

Jay Bueckert, regional director for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC) 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 CLAC alone, at least 500 oilsands workers have been laid off as companies scale back operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Suncor and Syncrude are reducing their onsite workers to essential employees only and have delayed projects to try and minimize the number of employees onsite. 

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."

Oilsands facilities often undergo shutdown work for scheduled maintenance that can only be done while certain equipment is not in use. Companies bring in extra workers to get the work done quickly.

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," Bueckert said. "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, leading to "a major impact on cash flow for these companies," Bueckert said.

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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.

There's a lot less people working and families are hurting​​.- Frank Farberman, co-owner of Direct Workwear

He said across Alberta, workers are looking at about 10,000 jobs being postponed as shutdown work gets delayed. 

People have been waiting for about five months for the 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.

He said some of the shutdown work can be pushed off for about a year, but some maintenance is required to keep the plants functioning, and that's what companies are assessing right now. 

Union 488 posted a list of jobs on March 7 with the upcoming shutdown schedule. (Union 488)

People in Fort McMurray are experiencing a ripple effect from the decrease in oilsands work. 

Frank Farberman, who owns Direct Workwear in Fort McMurray with his wife, 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,"Farberman said. "This town has just been put through too much."

Farberman said his family-run business will try to help people if they can.


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