Janitors at LNG Canada’s Kitimat project do some of the most important work during the pandemic, cleaning and sanitizing buildings where an ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 topped 50 cases last week.
But despite the job’s dangers, custodial staff working for a contractor at the site say they’re among the lowest paid and most poorly equipped, and the last to know when there’s an exposure risk.
This week, they learned that three co-workers have tested positive for the virus, including an Indigenous Elder who had finished his last shift and returned to his home in a remote northern B.C. community a week earlier.
“People are scared. People are terrified,” industrial janitor Dawit Birru said after hearing the news. “Some people have underlying conditions, right? And then some of our people are older. They have families. Even if you’re young, you go back home to your grandparents, to your fathers, to your mothers.
The janitors work for Dexterra, a Toronto-based company providing facility management services for the liquefied natural gas plant under construction in Kitimat. They clean many of the buildings that are part of the project, including management offices and trailers where COVID-19 cases have been appearing. They’re scheduled to work two-week rotations, remaining in camp while working and returning to their home communities during the breaks. But many extend their time in camp to increase earnings.
The workers are calling out what they describe as unsafe working conditions with long hours, low pay and a lack of transparency in communicating about the COVID-19 outbreak that broke out at the project Nov. 19.
“What’s even scarier is we didn’t even know about the outbreak until it came out on the news,” Birru says. “We’re supposed to be the frontline workers. The least you could do is tell us so we’re extra prepared, so that we know while we’re walking into the situation. They did not tell us at all.”
A letter from 25 janitors who’ve ‘lost all faith’
The workers provide an essential service at the site, spending 10 or 11 hours a day cleaning and sanitizing the buildings where 54 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus as of Friday. According to Northern Health Authority, five cases remained active with one person in isolation on site. The rest were isolating in their home communities.
Yet the workers say Dexterra has failed to provide adequate PPE and expects them to travel in crowded vans to worksites, where they work long days hauling heavy loads, often in foul weather.
In addition, the pandemic has increased workloads while the department is chronically understaffed, with workers saying they are given jobs that should be allocated to two or three people. Some describe skipping breaks in an effort to keep up.
The staff recently wrote to LNG Canada's prime contractor JGC Fluor** saying they had “lost all faith” that Dexterra would provide a living wage and prioritize health and safety. The letter was signed by all 25 of those working on site at the time. In total, 40 janitorial staff work in the department.
The Tyee talked to four janitorial staff who work for Dexterra at the LNG Canada construction site, where they are surrounded by building trades who earn more than twice their pay. Despite the heavy workloads and fear of contracting COVID-19, they say they like their jobs — and can’t afford to leave.
For workers like Birru, quitting isn’t an option. He travels from his home in Edmonton to work two-week shifts at the plant and can still barely pay his bills.
“My rent is $1,400. Half my cheque goes to the rent,” Birru says. “And I’m single. Imagine people who have got kids and stuff like that. It’s not a living wage at all what they give us. What hurts the most is, everybody’s getting paid well — everybody is getting paid well — except us.”
The workers doing the cleaning are paid $17.50 an hour. Those who started at the site nearly a year ago say they haven’t received a raise since then.
Working for Dexterra, a $700 million ‘service provider’
When LNG Canada announced two years ago that it would proceed with the LNG processing plant, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called it “the single largest private sector investment project in Canadian history.” The $40-billion project, which will export liquefied natural gas to Asian markets, includes the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is under construction through northern B.C.
The government originally said the entire project would create 10,000 construction jobs and at least 300 permanent jobs. (LNG Canada’s website currently estimates between 4,500 and 7,500 people are needed for construction.) As a result, people flocked to the region in search of high-paying jobs, driving up local housing prices.
Gary Hill moved to Terrace from Prince Rupert in the hopes of finding work in the LNG industry. When he first arrived, he was paying $2,500 for two-bedroom accommodation. The single father, who has three school-aged children, is currently taking time off his work as a janitor at the project to recover from surgery to correct a repetitive strain injury to his hand.
While he was fortunate to finish his last shift days before the COVID-19 outbreak began, he says he doesn’t have the option to not return to work in January.
“We don’t make enough money,” Hill says.
“It’s good working there, but we need to make a better living wage. You know how expensive things are getting between here and Prince Rupert now, eh? All the landlords figure everybody’s making the big dollars because of LNG. But that’s not true. Some people are making a lot of money, but some aren’t.”
Hill began working for Dexterra in January, when it was still Calgary-based Horizon North. In March, the company announced it had merged with Dexterra to form “a leading national workforce accommodations service provider” with revenues over $700 million and more than 6,800 employees across Canada.
Last month, Horizon North announced it had changed its name to Dexterra Group.
But while the name changed, working conditions haven’t, the employees say.
Workers describe being up by 6 a.m. to catch a shuttle bus from Crossroads Lodge, a work camp in Kitimat, to the job site more than 20 minutes away. They aren’t paid for the travel time and punch the clock when they arrive at their 8 a.m. safety meeting.
Following the half-hour meeting in the break room — a cramped space that doesn’t afford physical distancing — they are shuttled in eight-person vans to buildings around the site and tasked with a workload some say is impossible to complete.
“We are just short-staffed all the time. I don’t understand why. It’s a simple problem that can be fixed by hiring more people, yet they’re just content on spreading the workload,” Birru says. “Management knew about this problem. We brought it up numerous times. Some of our older co-workers, how long can they take this? It’s a backbreaking job.”
Sherry began working at the site in April after her start date was delayed a month by the pandemic. She arrived shortly after LNG Canada said it had reduced its on-site workforce by half and says only a “handful” of people were left to clean up after at the time. (The Tyee has agreed not to use the worker’s real name as she fears workplace consequences.)
Since then, the workforce — and, along with it, her workload — has steadily increased as employees return to the site. LNG Canada says the number of people currently employed by the project exceeds 3,200, though only about two-thirds of those are on site at any given time.* More buildings are in use and cleaning protocols have increased, with the need to frequently wipe down tables and sanitize touchpoints like doorknobs and fridge handles.
“I have eight buildings that I clean myself,” Sherry says about her daily workload. “I can handle it. Not everybody can, now that the weather’s changing and we have to haul water from the wash car outside to the training rooms so we can mop the floors.”
Not all buildings on the construction site have water, and the crew is forced to haul heavy mop buckets from portable bathroom facilities, sometimes through wet and slippery coastal weather without proper safety and rain gear, they say.
The work can be treacherous, they say.
“Gosh, we’ve been mopping every day, three times a day in the bathrooms. It’s quite a bit for one person,” Hill says. “You’re carrying a lot of stuff with a lot of heavy things. You always have to have three-point contact, you know? When you’re going up and down stairs, it’s pretty hard to have three-point contact when both your hands are full.
“They say, ‘Just take one thing at a time.’ Then you’re spending a good half an hour packing your material in to do the cleaning. By the time you get there, you’re already half an hour behind, if you do it safely.”
Hill also began working at the site in January. When the pandemic began, he says they were told not to use dust mops — the four-foot-wide brooms used to clean large spaces — for fear of spreading the virus. Instead, he says they were given vacuum cleaners that are a fraction of the width.
He blames the devices for the tendinitis that’s forced him off work for six weeks.
“Can you imagine a gymnasium, and you’re using a little household vacuum to clean that whole floor?” he says. “When I was there, we always had to sanitize the lunchroom tables and everything like that. Extra work was added onto us but no extra help.”
Throughout the day, workers are allocated two 15-minute coffee breaks and one half-hour lunch break.
“But I miss mine all the time and so do my co-workers, just to meet the workload demand,” Birru says. “We miss coffee breaks, lunches. There’s just no time to think because the workload is way too much to accomplish. You don’t have the time.”
Given one mask and told not to lose it
The company has failed to provide proper PPE, all the employees say. Sherry says when she started in the spring, she was handed a single mask — one she says was donated to the company — and told to hang onto it.
“We were told not to lose it. If you did lose it, it was basically you could go to town and buy some disposables,” she says. “I just started buying my own.”
Only in the past few weeks, about the time that B.C. mandated wearing masks in indoor workspaces, were the workers provided face masks to wear at work.
Despite the long days — the employees clock out when they’re back at the break room about 6 p.m. but don’t get back to camp until close to 7 p.m. — staff often choose to extend their rotations, some up to five weeks without a day off, in order to increase their paycheques.
Late to learn about an outbreak
Sherry just finished a three-week rotation, which included two stints in isolation. She emerged Wednesday, following a negative COVID-19 test, after spending nine days in her room after being exposed to a worker who tested positive.
“We had asked [supervisors] the day before if there were any cases,” she says about hearing rumours that other workers had tested positive. “We asked our safety guy in toolbox in the morning and he said, ‘There’s zero cases on site.’”
“Then the next day, everything came out.”
The workers say they learned about the outbreak from media reports and staff in other departments.
The union representing the workers also says it has failed to get important COVID-19 information from the employer, such as the number of tests, positive cases and isolations at the site.
“When we reached out to Dexterra on that, they were like, ‘No, we have no intention of sharing any of that information with you,’” says Robert Demand, executive director with Unite Here Local 40. “It’s bad enough that they’re the lowest paid people on the jobs. Their health and safety is at risk, because we’ve got a contractor that doesn’t want to work with us. We deal with other contractors on this particular job, and they’ve been very forthright in working with us to make sure that health and safety facts are out there.”
He adds that at a time when everyone is working hard to battle the pandemic, Dexterra is not pulling its weight.
“I think the construction industry has demonstrated that they can work safely during the pandemic and that people are working incredibly hard with LNG to get their arms around this current situation up in Kitimat,” Demand says. “We expect Dexterra to be doing a hell of a lot more to make sure that people are safe.”
Dexterra responded to The Tyee’s emailed questions with a statement saying it takes the health and safety of its employees seriously.
“Our policies and processes meet or exceed all public health orders, including those related to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, and are regularly audited by our clients and the health authorities to ensure conformity with those requirements,” it said.
“While we cannot comment publicly on specific employee concerns, in all cases we remain in regular contact with employees or the unions who represent them to ensure we’re addressing any situations that may arise. This helps all parties work effectively to keep our employees, clients and communities healthy and safe.”
The union says that JGC Fluor responded to the employees’ letter by saying they couldn’t step in regarding workloads and wages but were willing to help with safety equipment.
When contacted, LNG Canada said it “expects employers to prioritize the health and safety of their employees, and that they treat their employees with fairness and respect.”
In a Nov. 27 open letter, LNG Canada CEO Peter Zebedee pointed to “thorough disinfecting and sanitizing” as one of its top responses to the current outbreak.
It’s just one example of the important job the janitors do cleaning the facility.
Proud of the work, afraid to go back
Currently, all four employees The Tyee spoke with are at home, either on their week off or on temporary leave. They describe mixed feelings about returning to work.
Staff who don’t feel safe working have the option to take a leave without pay, they say. Allen was on days off as the workplace outbreak spread and opted to stay home with his family in Prince Rupert rather than expose himself to the virus. (The Tyee has also agreed to withhold Allen’s real name.)
“They told me at the beginning of my job, if I don’t feel safe at any time, I have the right to refuse to return back to work,” he says. “The thing is, if I chose to go back to work up there and I do get the COVID, I won’t be able to see my family or my wife for a long time. That’s why I chose to stay home for a while, where I feel safer.”
Sherry says she intends to look for work closer to home.
“I don’t feel that they’re doing anything to keep us safe,” she says. “I’ve lost hope in them. And I really enjoyed my job because I really like the people that I actually work with, the people that I see in the buildings. They are amazing.”
Hill agrees, saying he looks forward to returning to work once his hand has healed. Despite training as a heavy equipment operator and environmental monitor, he chose custodial work over a job with more than twice the pay because of its long-term potential.
“I’m thinking long term, you know what I mean? Once that construction stuff is done, you’re out of a job. Even if the pay’s a little bit less, I’d rather not have to worry about looking for a job every two years,” he says. “When the COVID first broke out, everybody went home from different companies. And we were the only ones that didn’t even have layoffs. They kept us working.”
It’s a testament to the importance of the job.
“I can say every one of us enjoys our job and has pride in it. You know, we’re always getting compliments and that kind of stuff from people from other companies,” Hill says.
“But all that stuff doesn’t pay our bills, right?”
*Story updated on Dec. 7 at 2:04 p.m. to correct an error about the number of employees on-site at a given time. **Story corrected on Dec. 8 at 10:53 a.m. to note the workers had raised their issues with LNG Canada's prime contractor JGC Fluor, but not directly with LNG Canada.