ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — As Geoff Neville waited this week in a Montreal airport to begin his second day of travel from Nunavut to St. John’s, N.L., he said he tries to empathize with the angry people online who say he shouldn’t be allowed to go back home.
“They’re looking for someone to blame. And they think the rise in cases is the rotational workers, so, let’s blame those guys,” he said. “I don’t think they’re bad people, it’s just the situation is bringing the worst out of them, really.”
Neville works 14 days in a row in a gold mine in Nunavut and then gets 14 days off, so he flies home to see his wife and two young sons. Reduced flight schedules mean he can spend four days in transit. He has spent most of his time off in quarantine with his family.
He is one of thousands of rotational workers from Newfoundland and Labrador, a group suddenly in the public eye during the COVID-19 pandemic. With the province limiting travellers, public health officials have made special provisions for rotational workers, trying to balance their need to hug their kids with quarantine rules aimed at containing any infections they could bring home.
Currently, they must isolate for seven days and get a COVID-19 test on Day 7. If it's negative, they have limited freedoms until Day 14.
In recent weeks, as case numbers rose, so too did the number of people pointing fingers at rotational workers, blaming them for two recent outbreaks in the small towns of Deer Lake and Grand Bank.
The bullying goes beyond social media, said Vanessa Tibbo. She created a Facebook group for spouses of rotational workers who want somewhere out of the line of public fire to ask questions and get support. She expected a few dozen people to join, but as of Wednesday, there were more than 500 members.
“I think a lot of families fear more the backlash they’re going to get from the community than COVID itself," said Tibbo, whose husband flies out to Alberta for work. "It’s a really worrisome situation.”
She says she’s heard from parents whose children are being ostracized at school because they come from a rotational worker family. During Friday's pandemic briefing, the province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Janice Fitzgerald, said it was "heartbreaking" to hear children were being stigmatized.
"If you are a parent, and you witness any ill treatment, discrimination or bullying of a child, regardless of whether they have a parent that is a rotational worker or simply because they have a runny nose, I implore you to act," Fitzgerald said.
Tibbo said she's also heard from families whose neighbours have phoned the police because they were outside in their yard or in the driveway. In a statement Wednesday, Cpl. Jolene Garland confirmed RCMP "have received at least one complaint concerning a rotational worker."
Tibbo said her family has been in isolation for more than 120 days so far this year, and she considers herself lucky: she’s a registered nurse who happens to be on maternity leave. She said she can’t even imagine the added stress of navigating her job with her husband’s quarantine routine.
Barbara Neis said the pillorying of the province’s rotational workers is “disturbing.” A sociologist at Memorial University in St. John’s, Neis leads a national research project called the On The Move Partnership, looking at Canada's mobile labour forces.
Rotational workers’ lives are already strained, and the pandemic has only complicated things by reducing flights, lengthening travel time and pulling workers away from their families for longer stretches of time, either through self-isolation or through extended work periods, Neis said. If there's an outbreak at one of their worksites, they often can't come home at all.
Noting she sees plenty of people walking around with masks hanging off their chins, she adds: “There are lots of people who are not being careful who really don't have the same kind of pressures that these families are dealing with, and yet might be quite quick to point fingers at those families.”
Newfoundland and Labrador has always had a substantial rotational workforce, with numbers peaking at about 25,000 in 2008, Neis said. The latest data, from 2016, put the number at 14,000 workers.
Neis says with the pandemic highlighting their unique challenges, it’s a good opportunity for the government to institute more support targeted to rotational workers and their families.
As for Neville, he’d like people to understand that the public health measures at the mine where he works likely make it safer than being home in Mount Pearl, and that he’s constantly on his toes as he travels, trying desperately to avoid anyone or anything that could put his family at risk.
“The majority of us are . . . men with families that are putting money away to try to retire so we don’t have to do this rotational work for the rest of our lives,” Neville said, adding: “I’d love to be home every night.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 3, 2020.
Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press