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Job Transition for Coal Workers Faces Uncertainty as Alberta Government Prepares First Budget

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The 70 unionized workers and dozen administrative staff who are about to lose their jobs at Alberta’s Highvale coal mine face “a lot of uncertainty” as the province’s latest budget approaches, with a change in government throwing their job transition plans into doubt.

“The Coal Workforce Transition Program, launched by the previous NDP government in 2017, was intended to help coal workers and communities such as Wabamun, located near the Highvale Mine, transition away from the industry,” Star Calgary reports [1]. “Through the program, workers that have been laid off after being employed by at least one coal-fired power plant or mine for a year are eligible for up to 75% of their weekly earnings—when combined with Employment Insurance benefits. It also offers education vouchers to retrain workers, a bridge to retirement program for older workers, and relocation assistance for anyone moving more than 40 kilometres to a new job.”

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Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party government didn’t shut the transition program down when it took office in April, Star Calgary writes. “However, coal workers found the approval process for their applications was taking longer and longer,” with two retirees who applied in April waiting six months for a reply.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty with it,” said United Steelworkers Local 1595 President Roy Milne. And with the UCP’s first budget due to be tabled October 24, “I really have no idea which way it’s going to go,” he added. “I wouldn’t bet either way.”

By the end of this month, Star Calgary says, layoffs and departures will have cut the work force down by about two-thirds. But the remaining workers are nervous about two layoff dates coming up this month, given the vulnerability of the transition program. “Every time I come into work, there’s somebody asking that question,” said heavy equipment operator Debbie Labrecque.

A provincial spokesperson told Star Calgary the government would take a “thoughtful approach” to matching the upcoming budget with Albertans’ priorities, adding that “anyone who has been approved for support will continue to receive it.” But last month, Finance Minister Travis Toews predicted a period of fiscal restraint, after a review commission called for about C$600 million in annual spending cuts to reduce the province’s deficit.

Labrecque echoed Milne’s concern that transition approvals are already hard to come by. “Getting answers to basic questions has been difficult, she said, and some workers who banked on getting the 55% of their average weekly wage promised by the program are panicking at the thought that may not happen,” writes reporter Brennan Doherty. “She’s been handing out cards from her own financial advisors, encouraging anyone needing help to give them a call.”

“People want to make a change, but they’re having a hard time doing it because of the uncertainty of getting that little bit of extra help from the government,” she said.

Without transition support, The Star Calgary notes that mass layoffs in coal towns like Wabamun and Hanna can devastate whole communities as well as the work forces involved.

“In most cases, the power plants and the associated coal mines are the biggest employers in the community,” said Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan, former chair of the Coal Transition Coalition, in a previous Star Calgary interview. “To lose them, or to lose significant numbers of people working in those facilities, represents a huge blow—not only to the workers and their families, but also to the local economies.”