Rotational workers feel all eyes on them after N.L.'s influx of cases from Alberta
Workers want people to understand rigorous safety protocols, call for faster testing
As the premier of Newfoundland and Labrador stared down the barrel of the camera Monday and offered a stern warning to rotational workers, some of those workers sat in isolation or at faraway work camps and worried about how much pressure they'd face at home.
As of Monday, the province had seen 52 new cases of COVID-19 since September. Those cases, though minuscule in comparison with many other provinces in Canada, came after months of calm and streaks of weeks without any cases at all.
In total, 18 infected people came directly from Alberta, and 16 of those were from workers returning to the province. Other workers returned from places like Ontario and Manitoba with the virus.
Rotational workers have been blamed for two recent outbreaks — one in Deer Lake and one in Grand Bank — when the virus spread to family members and close contacts.
One worker, who spoke to CBC News on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal at home, said the cumulative effect of working in a hot spot and coming home to people being afraid of him has been crushing.
"Morale is very low," said the man as he sat in his room at one of six outbreak sites in the northern Alberta oilsands. "It feels like a jail."
The camp has 800 workers in it, and 39 have tested positive for the virus. There hasn't been a positive case in more than a week, but the camp remains locked down with no new workers coming in from outside for two weeks.
If a person from Newfoundland and Labrador is identified as a close contact of an infected worker, they could spend 14 days alone in their room before being allowed to go home.
More than the virus or the isolation, it's the going home part that has him worried.
"The only part that actually gives me any anxiety is reading how the general population feels about rotational workers by reading nasty comments online, as well as the government's refusal to entertain point-of-entry testing."
This worker, like many others, has been calling on the provincial government to test workers as soon as they get home.
On Monday, Premier Andrew Furey said there is no science to back up the idea. In some cases, workers have tested negative after five days at home and then tested positive later.
With that in mind, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, announced the province was changing its testing regimen for rotational workers to add two more days of isolation before testing.
A worker must now receive a negative test after seven days of isolation, instead of five, effective Wednesday, Nov. 25, she said.
Furey spoke directly to rotational workers and had a serious message.
"Let me be very clear, rotational workers must continue to adhere to the measures put in place by Dr. Fitzgerald and her team at public health," he said. "This is of the utmost importance to our many dedicated rotational workers. To this group, I say I know travel during the pandemic has been stressful enough for you and your families, but please, please, I implore you to follow the provincial guidelines. We have shown that when we do, it works and it only takes one. We all need to work together and support each other."
The premier called on companies in places like Alberta to consider changing shifts to 30 days on, 30 days off. That would allow workers more time with their families when they return home.
The worker who spoke with CBC News doesn't expect his request will get much consideration from companies who use rotational workers.
Much of the workforce consists of people who live in Western Canada and won't want to work for a month straight without commuting the relatively short distance home. Companies also have structured schedules with cohorts of workers sticking together for shifts to reduce the number of contacts for each person. If accommodations were made only for workers from Newfoundland and Labrador, it would throw off that balance, he said.
N.L. has long history of rotational work
Another worker speaking with CBC News said people need to consider the sheer number of workers who travel to and from places like Alberta, and then look at the number of cases.
While current data was unavailable as of publishing time, a 2016 study undertaken by Memorial University pegged Newfoundland and Labrador's workforce in Alberta alone at more than 8,000 people on average per year from 2002 to 2016.
That number peaked in 2008, with more than 25,000 people calling Canada's most eastern province home while working elsewhere.
Newfoundlanders and Labradorians have occasionally faced criticism in Alberta for making large wages and spending the money at home. Now they're facing scrutiny from their neighbours for working away.
Six cases broke out in Grand Bank, including two in a long-term-care home. Tensions are high in the small town, and fingers were being pointed at a rotational worker and his family.
In an interview on Monday, Grand Bank Mayor Rex Matthews urged people to remain calm.
"People on rotational work, they do sacrifice," he said. "They travel to other provinces of this country for employment, they leave their families, they leave their home, they leave their community, and it helps our economy. So under normal circumstances there's no issues, but these are extraordinary times."
The situation has some rotational workers considering a new career, said another man who spoke with CBC News.
He works short contracts across numerous sites in Alberta. In each place, he works mostly in isolation, and spends downtime in isolation. Even outdoors away from other people, he said, he can be fired for not wearing a mask.
"I don't think people realize the rules we have to follow. That's what I think people are missing," he said.
When he comes home, he isolates away from his family until a test comes back negative. That means his children are a wall away, and he can't hug them.
He said he's not alone in his reservations about continuing with this career. There's no end to the pandemic in sight, and for some workers, that could mean living longer in isolation than out of it for another six months, a year, or more.
"I'm definitely starting to think about staying home a little bit more," he said. "I don't know when we're going to be back to normalcy again."
- A previous version of this story stated Premier Andrew Furey announced changes to when rotational workers can get a COVID-19 test upon returning to N.L., however, It was Dr. Janice Fitzgerald.Nov 24, 2020 2:24 PM NT