Nfld. & Labrador

How N.L.'s Fort McMurray workers risk COVID threats at work, and stigma at home

As COVID-19 rages across Alberta, it has never been more dangerous for Newfoundland and Labrador's rotational workers to fly for shifts in the oilsands camps around Fort McMurray. The workers face threats both on the job and at home, with one family telling CBC News they're at their wits' end dealing with stigma.

Oilsands region has highest per capita infection rate in Alberta

Outbreaks in the Fort McMurray region are leading to increased pressure on Newfoundland and Labrador's rotational workforce. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

As COVID-19 rages across Alberta, it has never been more dangerous for Newfoundland and Labrador's rotational workers to fly for shifts in the oilsands camps around Fort McMurray.

The workers face threats both on the job — in an area where leaders last week declared a state of emergency over skyrocketing COVID-19 rates — and at home, with one family telling CBC News they're at their wits' end dealing with stigma.

One out of every 10 tests is coming back positive across Alberta as the province wages a battle against a medley of virus variants and record caseloads. Those same variants are trickling into Newfoundland and Labrador from hot spots across Canada, largely contained, for now, by two-week isolation requirements on entry.

But as the caseload in Newfoundland ticks upward, a Northern Peninsula woman says the spotlight on her family has turned into a harsh glare.

"It gets worse and worse as time goes on, because every case that comes into our province is travel-related," the woman told CBC News in a phone interview.

CBC agreed to protect her identity after the family raised fears about the potential negative consequences of speaking publicly.

"There's no peace. All eyes are on us," she said. "We're being judged all of the time. We're being monitored all the time.

"Even to go outside by our door, or to go for a drive during modified isolation" leads to finger-pointing, she said. 

"A lot of people don't understand the rules."

The woman's husband, who works two weeks in Fort McMurray before flying home for another fortnight, remains in isolation during his time off. Yet the family told CBC News they've been reported twice when the rotational worker was seen in his vehicle, dropping off his partner to run errands.

Both times, she said, the family acted in accordance with the province's modified isolation rules for rotational workers, which permit them to interact with family members and go for a walk or drive once they test negative.

"Even when we can go out in public, we just tend to stay home anyway," she said. 

"We don't even really want to go out in public, because that's where we feel the biggest risk is for us right now."

'I'm glad I'm local'

Adam Janes moved from Newfoundland to Fort McMurray seven years ago. As infection rates spike around him, he watches the situation at home, with a low coronavirus caseload, with longing.

"I don't want to use the word 'jealous,'" Janes said wistfully.

Despite the homesickness, he wouldn't trade places with his rotational coworkers, often forced apart from their loved ones during their time off. 

"It's a rough situation," Janes said, noting he's glad that he gets to go home every night to his girlfriend and dog, which his coworkers can't do. "I don't think I could be doing what they're doing."

Adam Janes says morale at oilsands sites has bottomed out, but he takes solace in being able to go home to his partner and dog each night. (Adam Janes/Facebook)

Janes, a field mechanic for United Rentals, describes a pressure cooker for viral spread within the oilsands work camps — despite the prevalence, he says, of people following the rules.

"You've got a massive rotation of people coming in from all over the country every day," he said. Residents and workers keenly wear masks and keep their distance, but it's not always possible on the job, he said.

"The outbreaks have more to do with the camps and people working on site in close capacity," he explained, rather than people flouting the rules when they're off the clock.

He told CBC News that companies have tried to mitigate risks as much as possible, however, noting that he feels safer at work, doing his particular job, than in the general public.

"You can minimize as much as you can. The work still has to be done. You can't just turn the plant off."

As virus spreads, pressure grows

Vincent McDermott, editor of Fort McMurray Today, says the region leads Alberta in cases per capita. But as the virus rips through work sites, it's becoming more difficult to track.

More than 2,000 oilsands workers, according to McDermott, have been infected in the latest string of outbreaks.

Isolation was already pushing these workers to their breaking point. "The fear of catching COVID while on the job just adds to that," McDermott said.

The family in the Northern Peninsula would agree. Just going for a walk, the woman says, seems impossible these days.

"Basic things that make a person healthy [are] stripped away from us," she said. "We're becoming more unhealthy mentally, as a family, because of all of this."

She watches as her husband withdraws, beaten down by competing pressures to fend off both the virus and public criticism.

She speaks hopelessly about vaccine deployment and effectiveness. It's not clear those shots will change anything for their household, she says. These days, her husband's identity as a rotational worker consumes their lives.

"Right from the get-go, the majority of the responsibility and accountability for the transmission of COVID has been placed on their backs," she said.

"It's just been hard overall to be treated so differently."

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