Fort McMurray residents face job uncertainty amid wildfire evacuation

Fort McMurray residents face job uncertainty amid wildfire evacuation

15 May 2016

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Canada —  You’re far from home and your workplace just burnt down — what do you do?

With the town of Fort McMurray in virtual lockdown until wildfires can be extinguished and essential services can be restored, businesses from oil refineries to coffee shops have had to close their doors.

Although most companies are unsure of the damage sustained to their operations, at least one employer is still paying workers after the business went up in smoke.

At the Super 8 Fort McMurray, which was completely gutted by the fire, motel franchise-owner Eric Watson says he will continue to pay all staff and is trying to help them find work in the interim.

“Yes, all employees have been receiving regular pay since the fire and we are working with everyone to try and ensure they maintain employment with us or our partners while the hotel is rebuilt,” Watson told the Star in an email.

Suncor, one of the biggest employers in the region, will pay employees at least through their May 26 paycheque, it said on its website.

Outside of the oil industry, some retail and food-industry employers have also agreed to compensate workers for the shifts they were unable to work.

“Wages have been subsidized and protected through a company benefit we call catastrophe pay,” said Starbucks spokesperson Madeleine Lowenborg-Frick in an email. Similar policies were in place at Telus, Tim Hortons and McDonald’s. The companies also made substantial donations to the Red Cross. The charity is giving $600 to each Fort McMurray adult and $300 for dependants, to help people cover immediate expenses.

But not everyone is so lucky. So far, at least 20,000 evacuees have applied for Employment Insurance because they aren’t being paid.

Smaller companies often don’t have the same protections — or cash flow — as big organizations, and employers have to temporarily lay people off until businesses are back up and running.

Brad Friesen, who owns a small landscaping company, has been in limbo since the fire. He knows he’ll eventually be able to pick up where he left off, but for now he’s making no money himself and unable to pay staff.

“I’m more concerned about my employees than myself,” he said, most of who have applied for EI.

In the meantime, Friesen says he’s giving them odd jobs when he can and postponing paying big bills.

“I’ll do everything I can to lessen the blow,” he said.

Premier Rachel Notley said earlier in the week that a schedule for residents’ return to Fort McMurray would be provided in about two weeks, and it’s unclear how long it will take for the city to rebuild and for things to get back to normal.

“It’s the uncertainty — how long is how long?” he said.

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