‘It’s way more than I would ever have anticipated’: Union thrilled with salary, benefits deal for laid-off Cameco workers
ALEX MACPHERSON, SASKATOON STARPHOENIX
Published on: November 14, 2017 | Last Updated: November 14, 2017 4:45 PM CST
Cameco Corp.’s Key Lake uranium mill in northern Saskatchewan. CAMECO CORPORATION / SASKATOON
Workers affected by Cameco Corp.’s decision to temporarily close two uranium production sites in northern Saskatchewan will be paid 75 per cent of their base salary and retain their benefits during the 10-month layoff, according to the union representing them.
United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8914 announced the agreement with Cameco in a social media post on Monday. Denis O’Hara, the union’s interim president, said in an interview that the money will come from employment insurance (EI) plus “top-ups” from the company.
“It’s way more than I would ever have anticipated,” O’Hara said less than a week after Cameco announced plans to temporarily shut down its McArthur River mine and Key Lake mill, beginning in January, in the face of what it called “unsustainably” weak uranium prices.
The production halt is expected to affect 560 Cameco employees and 285 contractors. O’Hara said while it’s not yet clear how many USW members will get pink slips, Cameco’s actions mean the workforce will be around next year when the operations are expected to start up again.
“This enforces my opinion of Cameco being a caring employer. They care about their employees and the communities they come from,” O’Hara said, noting that the agreement will be especially beneficial for the roughly 49 per cent of workers who live in the province’s north.
Cameco said in a memo to employees last week that it was working on a plan to top up EI benefits and provide group benefits during the shutdown. Tim Gitzel, the company’s president and CEO, said in an interview that the company will need them when the operations are restarted.
Company spokesman Gord Struthers confirmed the agreement in an email on Tuesday, noting that Cameco will top up EI and continue “selected benefits” for permanent unionized and salaried staff.
“Cameco respects people and we want to help our employees and their families get through this period. When it’s time to restart production, we will need the many skilled and experienced people who operate these facilities,” Struthers said.
Cameco has been struggling since the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi disaster sent uranium prices into freefall by drastically reducing demand for nuclear fuel. The company responded by cutting costs, part of what it calls a “lower for longer” business strategy.
Despite temporarily closing its Rabbit Lake mine in April 2016 and slashing its corporate workforce, however, the company continued to struggle as uranium prices fell by more than 70 per cent. Last month, Cameco reported its fourth consecutive quarterly loss.
“There’s just today too much uranium out there,” Gitzel said last week. “We have a good inventory of uranium at Cameco that can sustain us that we can put into profitable contracts … We can actually buy uranium cheaper than we can produce it.”