Going Mobile: Recovering from Loss

Anne’s road to housekeeping in a work camp south of Fort McMurray is marked with twists and turns. It started in 2008 when, just two years after her husband died of a heart attack, the New Brunswick tourist industry took a turn for the worse. Anne tried her best to keep her small business alive for a few years, but soon realized it was tying her down both financially and geographically. Employment Insurance just wasn’t enough to make a go of it. With her two sons now grown – and one of them working away – Anne thought perhaps she should move on. This would mean leaving her aging mother, but Anne had a sibling outside of St.John who could provide care. So, Anne decided to try her luck in Quebec, where she could be around other French speakers. By 2011 she was working as general help at a mining camp in northern Quebec.


But then fate struck again. Anne got sick and had to quit her job. “I didn’t really have any work after that, and well, it had only been a year so I didn’t really have any money in my pocket.” In the interim one of Anne’s sons had moved to Edmonton, married, and was commuting up to the oil sands working maintenance. It seemed obvious to her that she should try her luck, too. Anne packed her bags once again and moved to Alberta. She could have commuted from Quebec or New Brunswick, but her son told her that employers were only covering flight costs from Edmonton or Calgary for housekeepers and other camp staff. After years of caring for her family, grieving her husband’s early death, and facing financial and health crises, Anne was bound and determined to save enough money to retire by 65. So there was no way she was going to pay to commute back and forth from several provinces away. She was going to make $20/hour (before overtime) count.

While most people don’t think of camp housekeepers as mobile workers, most of them are. Anne commutes back and forth from Edmonton to the oil sands for 21 days at a time, with ten days off in between. For a couple of years the employer flew her and other camp staff on the company plane, but in late 2014 as the price of oil dropped once again, they were soon being transported by bus. Some of Anne’s co-workers have opted to drive their own vehicles back and forth, but Anne prefers the safety of the bus – and the chance to rest, listen to music, or watch a movie during the five-hour ride each way.

Anne sometimes marvels at her own journey of going mobile: “I only went from one province to another – well, to two others! – but you know, I am older, I went out of my comfort zone, that’s for sure. I have adjusted well now but I was kind of on my own. Other than knowing my son, I didn’t have friends here, I didn’t know my way around, and, I found it a little overwhelming. But I’ve adjusted to it.”

Work-Family Relations: Juggling Competing Responsibilities

Anne used to be able to sleep on the bus ride back to Edmonton. She cherished this chance to rest, especially when she was coming off of a night shift. But these days, returning to Edmonton has become stressful; she finds herself wide awake, thinking about the family demands that have crept back into her life. When Anne first moved to Edmonton a few years back, it was great to live just a few blocks away from her son and his new family, even though their rotational commuting schedules rarely matched. “It was hard for us to be all together – sometimes we only had one day a month off at the same time – but when we were together, oh my, we had a family day!”

Then a series of family challenges emerged. Like too many other young oil workers faced with the powerful combination of high stress and high income, Anne’s son got into drugs. Soon it had destroyed his marriage. Anne stepped in as an extra caregiver for her granddaughter. And then, not long after this, Anne learned from her sister back in New Brunswick that their mother’s health was failing and she would need more formal and costly daily care.

All of this means that Anne juggles a complicated set of competing responsibilities when planning her days off. She coordinates with her sister to see if she should try to fly back and see her mother, or if she should just send the travel money home. And she coordinates with her daughter-in-law to see what kind of childcare support is needed while she is back in Edmonton.

Sometimes Anne just wants to fly off to a sunny destination during her precious days off, like some of her co-workers do, but then guilt and cost get in the way.

Camp: Mama Bear

Anne and many other camp workers live where they work during their 20-day rotations, with some of them not leaving camp at all during this time. “Here you don’t count days or weeks, you count rotations,” she says with a laugh.

Anne figures that it’s important to make the most of being “stuck” with each other – to build something of a social life around three weeks of ten-hour days. “When you live in such an environment with limited external exposure, you have to unwind together.” But this isn’t always easy. Since different camp workers are on different night, day, or split shifts, leisure hours don’t necessarily coincide. And depending on vacations and rotation scheduling, workers who have historically worked together may suddenly only overlap by a few days. Still, every 10th day of her shift, or “hump day,” Anne makes a point of gathering together a group of housekeepers to go into Fort McMurray and celebrate. While there are very few Francophones, she has especially made friends with other women from the Maritimes. There is a Filipino group of housekeepers with whom she is friendly, and she sees them occasionally going into town as well.

There used to be a daily shuttle into town, or at least the possibility of checking out a camp vehicle, but these disappeared with stricter safety regulations and cost-saving measures. At some camps you are not allowed to have a personal vehicle at all, but at least in Anne’s open camp you can bring your car (if home is within driving distance), which feels less “like you’re in jail.”

Anne has also taken under her wing the small handful of staff with younger children (young mothers are actively discouraged from taking FIFO camp jobs). “All of the internet in the world can’t bring those kids into your arms,” she says. For her own part, Anne tries to squeeze in a call to her mother or a text to her daughter-in-law during her breaks.

One of Anne’s favourite co-worker moments happened not long after she first arrived. Staff in her camp had gotten sick of the disruptions to their lives caused by having to pack up their rooms each time they left camp on days off. Led by the housekeepers, they went en masse to the camp manager. “You say we are great staff and create a much-needed family atmosphere here,” they told him, “But then you take our rooms back and we have to start all over again next rotation.” Staff were soon allowed to keep their same rooms continuously. They then upped the ante by turning one of the smaller camp trailers into a staff-only lounge. They equipped it with a TV, a small fridge, and a fan – appliances that had been left behind in camp rooms by departing oil workers.

The congenial atmosphere has shifted somewhat in recent years, especially since Anne’s employer, a relatively small camp operator, was bought out by a large global firm. She feels that it’s “less like a family now, more like a corporation.” She sees less accommodation of work schedules and family life, and more capitulation to the demands of oil industry employers. So while staff’s own sense of family while they live and work in camp is diminished, they are still expected to create a “home away from home” atmosphere for the “clients” – the oil sands workers whose rooms Anne cleans.

Work: Absorbing Stress and Pain

Anne works hard to stay upbeat in camp, but it’s a challenge when her work life puts both emotional and physical strain on her. The emotional and mental stresses are due in large part to isolation, distance from home, and long work days and rotations. But more than this, their job includes the emotional labour of absorbing and mitigating the stresses of the oil workers who stay in camp. This includes everything from a smile and a kind word as they pass in the hallways, to getting to know some of the regulars, to staying calm when a worker gets cranky about dirty sheets not getting changed. Anne chuckles to herself: “I’m not just a mama bear to staff, then! I don’t know, I think these men, they need the comfort of women’s care, you know?” Emotional stress meets its peak in the face of suicide. Two years ago, a housekeeper opened a room in the morning to clean it only to find that a worker had killed himself overnight. After that, the camp instituted daily room checks.

Housekeeping in camp takes a physical toll as well. Camp rooms are often small, leaving little room to maneuver when moving beds and lifting mattresses. By Day Ten “you feel like, you know, muscles and everything, and oh my god, I’m really tired.” Over a year ago, Anne started experiencing back pain, exacerbated by increased work demands. With the oil price slump, the number of housekeepers was reduced, and they were asked to clean more rooms each day. “And that was on top of the oil guys getting more pissed off because rooms couldn’t be cleaned as often,” Anne observes.

Anne is getting treatment, but can only access it when back in Edmonton on her days off. While some of the camps run directly by oil companies have medical teams, the open camp (run more like a hotel) in which Anne works does not. “Thank god I moved my residence to Alberta last year,” she says. Prior to that, she had to pay for her own appointments and then navigate the bureaucracy to get reimbursement from the New Brunswick government. “I feel bad for the people that go to the hospital in Fort McMurray or Edmonton and the doctor tells them ‘Go see your doctor.’ Well, my doctor’s in BC or Newfoundland or…”

Anne has moved to Edmonton, but is still frustrated by the unequal burden of long distance commuting on camp staff from eastern Canada who don’t feel they have the option to move west. “Right now we have a $450 travel allowance. For people from my part of the country, this is not enough money to go home each time.” Anne finds it unfair that many of the oil workers not only get paid more but get their travel paid as part of their contract. She has also sometimes seen people enticed out to Alberta from Newfoundland or Nova Scotia with the promise of a job, only to find that there isn’t one. “That’s dirty pool. They should pay your way back home.”

Exiting: Mobile Work as Family Anchor

Anne feels secure for now, but the question is if and when she can actually retire. Like her fellow camp workers she used to count rotations left in her plan – “55 more to go!” – but since all of the changes in her family she has stopped doing so. Anne feels there is no way now that she can leave her camp job. Despite the human cost of commuting and distance, the pay is a lifeline for her family. And family is now in several places, scattering her loyalties and her paycheque. Camp life, housekeeping work, and Anne herself have become the physical anchors amidst this turbulence.

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