Trent Ernst, Editor
On April 15, 2014, Walter Energy Idled its Northern BC mines. We look at how the town is doing…
April 15, 2015 marks an inauspicious anniversary for the town. It was one year ago that Walter Energy announced that they were idling their Northern BC operations, including Wolverine Mine here in Tumbler Ridge.
In one day, 700 people in Tumbler Ridge and Chetwynd were effectively out of work, 415 of which were in Tumbler Ridge.
Since then, many former employees have moved out of town, often renting out their homes to people from Dawson Creek and other nearby communities in search of lower rent.
Still, there are hundreds of former Walter Employees still in town. Some are waiting for the mine to restart. Others are still looking for work. Still others are working out of town while their families remain here.
While she’s currently unemployed, Monica Brown considers herself one of the lucky ones. Brown worked as a driller on the blast crew up at Walter Energy’s Wolverine Mine. She was on D Crew, and was one of the first to realize that something was happening, as the blast crew was pulled off early. “I was out in the pit that night,” says Brown. “We had already heard through the grapevine that something was happening. We got called in at 6, and I remember walking in there. They handed us a garbage bag, they gave us a fifteen minute spiel, and we were out of there.”
After getting laid off by Walter, she took a couple months off before looking for another job, finding a job in August in the HR department of Anglo American’s Peace River Coal Mine.
Three weeks later, Anglo announced they were shuttering that mine, too.
Unlike the Walter shutdown, where employees found out 15 minutes beforehand, Anglo gave employees three months’ notice. “When they shut down, they were so professional about everything. They went above and beyond to help everyone with their benefits and everything. I was in HR with Anglo. We were telling people “hey, make sure you go see the dentist before this date, because your benefits will run out then. We started in September, and people weren’t laid of until January. What companies are supposed to do, they did. In March, we got a production bonus. A lot of people got severance. I thought it was crazy amazing.”
These days, says Brown, “I’m just trying to find work. The plan is to find work closer to my family in Alberta, which I’ve been planning on doing for a long time, but I’m not going to move there without a job, and with my house not sold, obviously that’s a little tough.”
Still, says Brown, she bought early, when the houses were cheaper, so she can get by on UI benefits. “I’m not at risk of losing the house or anything.”
And because she worked at Anglo until February, her UI Benefits are still going strong. That is not the case for anyone who hasn’t worked since Wolverine shut down, as UI Benefits last a maximum of 52 weeks, starting the date that people started receiving benefits.
This is not the case for Joe Hall, who worked as a welder out at Walter until he was let go. These days, he spends about fifty percent of his time working out of town. “I’ve worked in Quesnel Dawson, Pouce…anywhere I can find work, I go. It sucks, but if I don’t work, I’ll lose the house.”
Hall even spent a few months as a contractor for Anglo American, but the contractors out on site were let go, even before the announcement came that the mine was idling. He says there are a lot of people like him who aren’t in town anymore because they have to go work someplace else. He says he’s lucky because he’s worked a lot of job sites, not just mining. “A lot of people come right of high school and into mining. They don’t know anything else. I’m from Mackenzie. There, a lot of kids went straight into the pulp mill, and when the mill shut down, they don’t know anything else. A lot of people who have just only worked in the mining industry, that’s their scope. When one mine is effected, it effects everyone. If your experience just falls in that little box, that’s tough. And when you work in mining, this can happen anytime. When it’s good, it’s good. When it’s not…. Before you get into mining, you need to go get schooling. “
And it’s not just mining that is seeing a slowdown. Bill Hampel says he’s been applying for work all over the place, and hasn’t found anything yet. At the Borea job fair, he points around at the hundred or so people in the room. “Look at this,” he says. “Look at all these people. They’re not all from Tumbler Ridge. They’re from Chetwynd, from Dawson Creek, from Fort St. John…”
He says that’s the trouble with the work environment these days. With the Internet, everyone knows about every job, so if there’s a job that opens up in the area, he’s not just competing with other miners from Tumbler Ridge, but he’s competing with people who have been laid off from the oil and gas industry. He’s competing with people from Grande Prairie and Fort Mac and from across the country. “Grande Cache, Endako, Gibraltar have all laid people off in the last few months, and that’s not counting the 10,000 or so people in Alberta who have lost their jobs in oil and gas.”
Part of the issue, says Hampel, is that he’s 55. “People say they’re looking for long-term employees. Don’t they realize that I have a 15-year mortgage? Doesn’t that count for anything? Apparently not. They want these young salts.”
Dave “Colonel” Sanders says despite getting laid off, and despite the fact that coal prices are staying low, he has no plans of leaving Tumbler Ridge. “I call Tumbler Ridge home. After I made it twenty years here, I looked back at how my dad moved us around every five or six years, and I realized this is more home than anywhere my family was.”
He says he learned a lot going through the previous shutdown, and has worked hard to get to a point where he was able to weather a long term downturn. While he’d rather be working, he says he has managed to squirrel away enough money to keep him going for a while yet. And, while he has a whole bunch of toys sitting in his front yard, he has no debt.
Having gone through the previous shut down, says Sanders, this time it’s a lot different. “Back then, the mines owned the houses. They had a bargain sale, with houses going for $25,000. Some people took a chance buying those houses. Values of property tripled, quadrupled. People were told ‘no, we don’t have problems here.’ So eight months before the mine closed down, people were buying new houses for $208,000. They were buying new trucks, quads. Management was stressing that they weren’t shutting down.”
But then, on April 15 of last year, he show up for his last shift. He says the workers were told to Fill out their time card and make sure they were on the bus to town, which would be leaving shortly.
“Now you have people who are maxed out on their credit cards taking stuff to the dump because the smaller U-Haul you have to rent the cheaper it will be,” says Sanders. “There are horror stories of midnight moves, of owners losing their houses. How are people doing now? I don’t think they’re doing very good and it’s only going to get worse.”
But Sanders himself? He’s doing fine. “I’m glad I’m sitting where I’m sitting right now. I’m lucky. There’s a lot of people who can’t go three house payments, because they’re paying $1400/month. I’ve been under that gun once before, but I own my house now, and I can survive a while yet before I have to worry.”
He points to a couple who both lost their jobs when Walter shut down. Both managed to get a job elsewhere, and loaded all their stuff into a U-Haul, but were both laid off only a few months later, leaving them in an even tighter position than they were before.