How a struggling oil industry affects women and their families

They wish more Canadians understood how layoffs and uncertainty in the oil industry affect women and their families.

'Women's perspectives aren't being heard,’ Alberta steamfitter-pipefitter says

Women participate in a pro-oil industry rally in Edmonton. (Nicole Wapple)

'Tis the season for giving! That's why we're bringing back some of our favourite stories. This story was originally published on Dec 29, 2018. Enjoy!

Thousands of people have been rallying in cities and towns across Alberta — supporting the oil industry, expressing frustration with layoffs and protesting political barriers to new pipeline construction.

Most oilfield workers are men, but many women are in the rally crowds in places like Edmonton, Grande Prairie and Drayton Valley.

Among them are young workers whose careers in the trades have stalled, older women with mortgages and family members to support, and mothers returning to the workforce because their spouses are unemployed or underemployed.

Many women have told CBC News they wish more Canadians understood how layoffs and uncertainty in the oil industry affect them and their families.

"I think a lot of the time that women's perspectives aren't being heard," said Dana Francis, a 35-year-old Leduc, Alta. woman who has struggled to find work as a steamfitter-pipefitter in the past two years. She's now working weekend shifts as a labourer, earning $16 per hour — less than half of what she used to earn. 

Francis said she is grateful her husband has a steady income, but she misses her trade and the social interaction that came with it. Because she has a young daughter, she has the added challenge of trying to find employment that accommodates daycare hours.

Dana Francis, pictured with daughter Tesla Jessiman, plans to pursue a second trade with the hope of expanding her job opportunities. (Dana Francis)

Francis said that like many of her peers who graduated from Women Building Futures, an Edmonton organization that prepares women for careers in the trades, she plans to pursue a second trade to "recession-proof" herself in the future. She figures welding could be a good fit.

Raechelle Thorne, a 27-year-old steamfitter-pipefitter, said her work opportunities in the oil industry have been scarce for the past three years. She has worked only seven months in the past two years, despite applying to many lower-paying jobs outside her field. Even retail jobs are out of reach, she said, because employers consider her overqualified.

Thorne lives alone in an apartment in Lloydminster, Alta., where she said many oil workers and their families have been struggling since the recession that started in 2014.

"I'm watching people feed their kids barely anything through the day because they can't afford it," she said.

Maureen Weeres, who lives on the Saskatchewan side of Lloydminster, worked as an occupational health and safety representative in the oilfield for 23 years until losing her job in June.

"It's almost at a breaking point," the 56-year-old said. She's now considering moving to another part of the country to find work.

'Sometimes you need help'

Even women who work full-time in the oil industry told CBC News they are worried about the future.

Jennifer Smith, a self-employed 36-year-old truck driver who hauls crude oil, said she's fortunate to be doing well, but scared another recession could destroy her business.

A single mother, she is saving for post-secondary tuition for her daughter and son, who are in high school.

Smith said she feels for families who are struggling because she has been there herself, relying on income support when she was younger.

"Hard work gets you so far, but sometimes you need help," she said.

Women supporting husbands

Out of necessity, some stay-at-home mothers are choosing to enter the workforce and become the breadwinners of their families.

Marie Smith, a 41-year-old mother of two, recently accepted a job 40 kilometres from her home in Drayton Valley because her husband's work in the oil industry has been drying up.

"I know people don't feel sorry for oilfield workers because they make good money, but you'd be hard-pressed to find any family that can lose half of their income instantly and still manage to live and feel like they can sleep at night," Smith said.

Jen Kendel and her husband live in the eastern Alberta village of Kitscoty, where they plan to start a family. Two days a week, Kendel, 28, works for the oilfield services company her parents own. Three days a week she works in safety administration at another oilfield company.

But her husband, an apprentice welder, has had a much harder time finding work. He was laid off during the 2014 recession, soon after they got married. Kendel said he was set to work for a cannabis store in nearby Vermilion recently, but that plan fizzled after the AGLC suspended granting new retail licences.

Months of unemployment and uncertainty about the future can put a lot of pressure on couples, Kendel said.

"You're trying to pump up his tires all the time and make him feel good about himself, but the current job market right now, and especially the uncertainty with the oil, makes it very stressful," she said.

Effects extend to camp work, service jobs


Economists have shown that when oil prices are high and the energy industry is booming, there is more demand for services — a sector that employs many women.


But experts say there's less research on how women fare during downturns in the industry.



"That's definitely a hole in the literature and something that I hope to fill in the future," said Joseph Marchand, an economics professor at the University of Alberta.


U of A sociology professor Sara Dorow echoed his call for more study.


Her own work, based on interviews with people in Fort McMurray, suggests that economic downturns affect not only oilpatch workers and their families but also camp workers — many of whom are female — and caregivers and temporary foreign workers.


The stress of a downturn, Dorow said, is felt all the way down the chain of labour.

Women and workers in other provinces are also affected, she said, because during a bust, employers tend to stop paying for employees to travel back and forth between their jobs in Alberta and their homes in other provinces.



When Dorow conducted follow-up interviews with workers in Fort McMurray during the recession, many women told her they were feeling anxious and uncertain about the future.


"A lot of people used the phrase, 'Waiting for the axe to fall,'" she said.


Widen job searches, recruiter urges


Sharlene Massie, who owns About Staffing, a Calgary-based recruitment and employment agency, said many job seekers are reluctant to take work that pays half of what they used to earn in the oilpatch.


One of her clients, a woman who had worked as draftsperson in the oil industry for years, refused to apply for jobs in other areas. Massie said she and her colleagues begged their client to pick a new career but she wasn't willing.


"Those who have been successful have to be willing to change," Massie said.

Women participate in a pro-oilsands rally in Calgary. (Nicole Wapple)


Nicole Wapple, a 37-year-old Red Deer mother whose husband is considering working in the U.S. because of the downturn, said what needs to change is public perception about people who work in the oil industry and political action to get pipelines built.


Wapple said that's what has brought so many women — and their families — to the Rally4Resources protests she has been organizing in Alberta.


"It's comforting because when you're standing there with that many other people that feel the same way as you, you know you're not the only one."