Port of Churchill layoffs 'came out of nowhere,' says town's mayor

Upwards of 100 employees at the Port of Churchill in northern Manitoba are learning there is no work for them, which the town's mayor is surprising and devastating for people in the town of 800.

'It's pretty heartbreaking,' worker says after he and others received layoff notices

Denver-based OmniTrax has operated the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Rail line since 1997, but a slump in grain shipments has put a strain on the operation. About 50 employees got layoff notices on Monday and dozens more expecting to be called back have been told there's no work. (Cameron Macintosh/CBC)

The largest employer in Churchill, Man., has started handing pink slips to workers at the local port.

Mayor Mike Spence says about 50 employees at the Port of Churchill were handed layoff notices on Monday afternoon, and another 40 or 50 people expecting calls back are learning that there's no work for them.

"It came out of nowhere," Spence told CBC News. "The community, the employees are devastated by this all."

Spence said he's contacting the provincial and federal governments to see if they can intervene.

"We're going to have to work at this and rectify this matter … hoping we can reverse this," he said.

Workers say OmniTrax, the Denver-based company that runs the port, issued two-week layoff notices around 3:30 p.m. CT to a group of employees in the company's lunchroom.

Joe Stover, one of the laid-off employees, said it's an "extremely sad day" for Churchill — Manitoba's northernmost town, with a population of around 800.

Stover tweeted news of the layoffs after OmniTrax officials sat down with a group of workers for the emergency meeting. Workers were yelling, crying and screaming at the meeting, he said.

"It's pretty heartbreaking," he said.

"The port is the biggest employer in town, and it's the biggest building in town. It dominates our skyline and is part of our life…. I just got back from the Legion and there's still people in there that are crying."

A spokesperson with the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which represents Port of Churchill workers, confirmed the layoffs but said union officials would not be available to comment until Tuesday.

OmniTrax spokesman Ron Margulis refused to confirm or comment on the layoffs in Churchill.

Reached in Georgia, Margulis said the company would be releasing more information sometime Tuesday.

'I don't even have a Plan B'

Stover said he has work for another three weeks at another job, but he doesn't know what he will do when that work dries up.

"I don't even have a Plan B, so I have to try and figure something out, I guess," he said.

Stover said the news has shocked the community.

"We definitely weren't expecting bad news," he said. "We had anticipated that it might be a slower than usual season, but to have the whole thing called was pretty heartbreaking."

Joe Stover, who has worked at the Port of Churchill for 10 years, called the layoffs 'heartbreaking.' (Submitted by Joe Stover)
Elden Boon, president of the Hudson Bay Route Association — an advocacy group for the Port of Churchill — said news of the layoffs blindsided him, too.

He said his organization met with OmniTrax three weeks ago over concerns it had following a slow year, but company officials gave him no indication of possible layoffs.

Boon said officials have told him there would be no more grain shipments going through the port this year.

"This is the first time that it's ever shut down, other than the Second World War," he said.

OmniTrax has operated the Port of Churchill and the Hudson Bay rail line since 1997, but a slump in grain shipments has put a strain on the operation.

Spence said OmniTrax has been trying to sell the Port of Churchill and the rail line for some time.

"OmniTrax has indicated that they have made it clear they no longer want to operate the port, and we'll take it at that and let's hope there's a new future for the port," he said.

"By finding the right ownership and a new ownership towards operating a port effectively with Canadian ownership, I think we can make things happen. That's the goal."

With files from Austin Grabish