Facing union pressure, Husky agrees to demobilize workers in Marystown

Hundreds of workers employed at the Cow Head fabrication site in Marystown packed up their tools and went home Monday amid growing concerns over COVID-19.

The decision followed a demand by the union representing workers at the site to revisit the decision Sunday to close a crowded worksite in Argentia, but continue construction work in Marystown.

"We're not playing second fiddle to anyone," said Rick Farrell, president of Unifor Local 20.

Union leader flabbergasted

Farrell told CBC he was "flabbergasted" by the different approach taken by Husky Energy to the two worksites, which are both building critical components for the West White Rose extension project in Newfoundland's offshore oil sector.

Husky announced on Sunday it was halting construction at Argentia, where 650 workers were building the massive concrete gravity structure "to prevent the transmission of the COVID-19 virus among its employees, contractors, and the community," according to a statement.

"The company carefully assessed the risks and determined they could not be adequately mitigated for such a large construction workforce."

Husky Energy

But the company said the fabrication site in Marystown, with 230 people onsite is nearing completion.

"That work will continue so long as it is safe to do so," reads the statement.

Kiewit Offshore has the contract in Marystown to build the living quarters, along with other components such as the flare boom, heli-deck and lifeboat stations.

The decision raised concerns with workers in Marystown, said Farrell.

"It left us wondering where we stand. We want the same regards for our people," he said, adding there was widespread anxiety among workers Monday morning as they reported for their shifts.

"This virus is scary and uncertain. We want to flatten the curve and do this right," he said

The union and Kiewit leaders held several meetings Monday, and Farrell said there was a directive from Husky and the provincial government to halt construction.

"We're quite relieved," he said.

The suspension of work is the latest COVID-19-related blow to an already stressed provincial economy, and will be a financial blow for the workers.

Last week, Vale announced it's halting mining and underground construction activities at its mine in Voisey's Bay, while Nalcor Energy also decided to dramatically reduce the workforce at Muskrat Falls.

A Class-A tradesman at Cow Head earns $35 per hour, plus benefits, and they'll have to depend on the employment insurance program for income.

But Farrell said his members were not concerned about that.

"It will hurt financially, but I tell you you could hear (it among our members), safety comes first. Our families and our communities come first. What's the good of a paycheque if you're up in the hospital?" he said.

Construction workers 'essential,' says association chair

Meanwhile, the chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Association says his members believe they provide an essential service and their work should continue.

As the number of local COVID-19 cases grows, many employers have decided to shut down to avoid contamination and spread of the virus. No guidelines have been announced for the construction sector.

Craig Drover said the only worksites that he's aware of having been shut down are operated by the provincial and federal governments.

"It's not a one-size-fits-all situation here," Drover said when reached by phone Monday.

"A lot of our members have the controls in place in their safety programs to implement the recommendations that the medical professionals are giving us: the distancing, the sanitizing, keeping it under the maximum number of people that can gather."

Paul Palmeter/CBC

In British Columbia, where there are more than 420 cases, construction sites are allowed to continue operations as long as they ensure worker safety. The guidelines restrict the number of workers no more than 50 in any one space at a time. 

Trades NL executive director Darin King said workers at job sites are "required to work shoulder to shoulder."

"In short, we are asking government to use their resources and protocols to reassure our members that it is safe to work at these construction sites," King said in a statement Friday.

Drover said construction keeps to keep moving. 

"We are an essential service," he said. "For instance, with a snowstorm coming, we might lose power and we might have roofs blown off buildings. We'll need constructions to go and fix that. Hospitals are going to need support."

The Newfoundland and Labrador Construction Association has added a COVID-19 information page to update members.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador