Sudbury

Thousands of northern Ontario miners, mill workers stay on the job despite COVID-19

As of Wednesday, only businesses deemed by the province to be "essential" are allowed to keep running in the face of COVID-19, and that includes some of the biggest employers in the northeast: mines, sawmills and steel plants.

Companies are looking for ways to make industrial workplaces less crowded

Some 2,000 workers at the Algoma steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie will remain on the job, now that the industry is on the long list of businesses deemed "essential" by the provincial government. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

As of Wednesday, only businesses deemed by the province to be "essential" are allowed to keep running in the face of COVID-19.

That includes some of the biggest employers in the northeast: mines, sawmills and steel plants are all staying open.

Mike McQuade, CEO of Algoma steel in Sault Ste. Marie, says he feels his company is essential for economic reasons. 

"While the economy is likely to take a hit from some of the initiatives that have been taken, I think continuing with steel is important to the economy and Sault Ste. Marie in particular," he says. 

McQuade says the global economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is likely to prolong the hard times the steel business has been seeing in recent years, but at least for now, some 2,000 steelworkers will stay on the job.

Mike DaPrat, the president of USW Local 2251 representing most workers at Algoma Steel, says his members are thrilled to still be working, but a bit nervous about going to work. 

"We're going to look at staggering start and quit times because that would hopefully alleviate some of the congestion in the welfare and shower rooms. And we're looking at staggering lunch breaks, also," he says.

DaPrat says dozens of contractors come into the mill to perform maintenance, and the union is pushing the company to ensure they don't spread the virus to the regular workforce.

Sawmills and other forestry operations will keep going through the COVID-19 crisis, but are taking precautions to protect workers. (Erik White/CBC )

There are similar concerns at other big industrial workplaces in the region.

Eacom is trying to find ways to keep workers two metres apart at its sawmills in Timmins, Gogama, Elk Lake and Nairn Centre.

"Certainly our employees are concerned, which is understandable, as this is a period of high stress for all Canadians and that's why we have to work very diligently," says director of public affairs Christine Leduc. 

Domtar says it's paper mill in Espanola is essential because it produces personal hygiene products, as well as the pulp used for toilet paper and other tissue products.

The company says it is also looking to change the shift schedule to keep the mill from being too crowded, as well as extra cleaning and sanitizing.

The Glencore smelter in Falconbridge and all mining operations in the northeast will keep running, but companies are encouraging those who can to work from home. (Erik White/CBC)

The thousands of people in northern Ontario who work in the mining industry will continue to go to work as well.

Vale spokesperson Danica Pagnutti said in a statement that all "employee screening procedures" are now in place at its mines, mill and smelter in Sudbury. 

"Each operation is also taking action to encourage social distancing through various measures based on their local site circumstances. Pandemic coordinators have also been assigned at each of our sites to ensure accurate and up to date information is being shared with our employees," she said. 

Nick Larochelle, president of United Steelworkers Local 6500 representing 2,600 Vale employees, says the union and the company are currently working out a COVID-19 protocol, on top of negotiations for a new collective agreement. 

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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