The Covid-19 pandemic has forced Golder Associates to be flexible and adaptive in the face of border restrictions.
“Scary” is the word Damian Panayi, a biologist and manager at Golder, used to describe the weeks after the NWT’s first case of Covid-19 in late March, when almost all businesses closed.
“We didn’t know how it would be here. A lot of our work dried up at that time. We had a very quiet start of the year, just when things usually ramp up and get busy we were taking holidays and unpaid leave,” he recalled. “We were doing a lot of filing in the office and getting our equipment ready.”
Some contracts were cancelled and some clients weren’t sure their work could go ahead. Golder’s clients include the diamond mines and the exploration camps of Nighthawk Gold and Pine Point. It also provides services for the Northwest Territories Power Corporation, the federal government’s cleanup project at Giant Mine and Newmont’s remediation work at Con Mine.
While managing to avoid layoffs, the changed work structure saw staff toiling harder than ever in the spring and summer as the company navigated the complexities of the Covid-19 restrictions.
Complexities of border closures
Border restrictions have been one of the biggest challenges Golder has faced due to work processes being less efficient. When projects required that Golder bring up specialists or staff from its southern offices, the company had to apply to the GNWT for essential worker designation for those people.
“We have to show that this is work that can’t otherwise be done by a resident of the NWT. We had to present a clear plan on how the work could be done with minimal exposure to residents. The government needs to know where the person stays, how they get their meals, what their PPE (personal protective equipment) is, when they will arrive and leave, and so on,” Panayi said.
Southern technicians were brought up for specialized projects like installing and maintaining weather stations; a few times an archaeologist came up to search an area slated for drilling and to make sure no heritage resources were disturbed.
That has involved giving the southern staff members a lot more support and doing more paperwork than usual.
Extra support for imported staff
“Normally they can get their own rental vehicles and other things. But now those things have to be done with minimal exposure with non-NWT residents. We had to set them up so that they’re independent and didn’t have to come into contact with any residents,” Panayi explained.
“That means they can’t go to the grocery store, laundromat, gas station. They can’t go out for dinner. They can’t step into any community at all. For the few jobs we had that were remote, we had to make sure they were leaving Yellowknife with all their food, gas and equipment so they could work while making as little contact with residents as possible.”
The reduced flight schedules to the diamond mines also made it more convenient for Golder to use non-NWT staff.
“Anyone from NWT had to do their full rotation for two weeks,” Panayi said. “Imagine one plane every two weeks. Once you’re in, you’re stuck there for two weeks. That works for the staff at the mines but for us, we usually stay for less than that. Sometimes they would sit idle for a few days and they would have to isolate when they come back to Yellowknife because they were at the site where non-residents work.”
But the movement of professionals for projects was lower than before the pandemic. Panayi estimates cross-border flows of its engineers and personnel were reduced by about 50 per cent.
Value of local staff
Golder consequently reallocated Yellowknife staff for NWT jobs. It was a lot of extra work and Panayi said the Yellowknife staff were burned out by the end of the summer.
At the same time, the summer hustle showed them the value of having an office in Yellowknife.
Since Golder set up in Yellowknife in 1996, it has sometimes questioned the need for the office because relatively cheap flights meant southern companies could undercut them by sending up their own teams.
“It made it a tricky business decision for us to maintain an office here. But when Covid-19 happened, travel suddenly became much more complicated. It really validated our decision to keep a strong team in Yellowknife,” Panayi said.
The earth sciences engineering firm is now in the midst of its reporting season, a relatively slower period when staff compile reports on the data they collected in the summer from soil, water and satellite imagery field studies.
The company is also gearing up for the start of its busy season in May.
“I’m very pleased to say that things are great right now. Work has picked up,” said Panayi.
More jobs for Yellowknife engineers
Golder is aiming to be in a better position as summer approaches, with plans to depend more on local staff for its projects.
“We have four job ads out for positions in the summer. This is in anticipation of more border restrictions this summer. In our little area of the economy the border restrictions are keeping work in the NWT,” said Panayi.
Geotechnical engineering firm Tetra Tech also was able to do most of its projects with its Yellowknife staff in the summer and fall, said manager Rob Girvan.
It brought up some specialists by asking the GNWT that they be designated as essential workers. It hasn’t tried to bring up more workers since Covid-19 cases began increasing in the fall.
Stantec leveraged the GNWT’s Business Incentive Policy to help build local teams and mostly selects consultants based in the territory as well.
“Fortunately, under the model that Stantec has built, we can serve many of our clients well with the teams that live and work in the NWT without significant challenges of isolating,” said practice lead Kevin Hodgins.