Alberta flood cleanup employs students

Hundreds of imported Italian tiles lay sullied in two inches of mud, while blotches of black mould peek out from peeling wallpaper. Wet chunks of drywall, soggy armfuls of files and waterlogged doors  are placed in piles before being double-bagged in yellow garbage bags covered with “CAUTION ASBESTOS” warnings. All of this is happening inside a bright-orange plastic-sheeted containment area, by men and women in white paper jumpsuits and respirators.

This is where I found myself working for the better part of the summer, in the basement of a flood-damaged professional building. While thousands of volunteers helped the cities of Calgary and High River back to their feet, businesses specializing in demolition and mould remediation flourished. New job sites and dozens of employees were added every day during the first couple weeks after the flood hit. Some companies grew from a work force of 16 to a hundred and 16 in a matter of weeks — others shuttled busloads of workers to job sites everyday. While the volunteers helped people get back into their homes, businesses hired demolition crews. Certain jobs needed the attention of experienced businesses with the work force and proper safety equipment to handle them, for example: mould and asbestos remediation.

Tearing down and bagging mouldy drywall for 10 hours, seven days a week, can get tiring. It isn’t quite as glamorous as some UVic co-op students’ summer jobs, and the hours aren’t as flexible; however, besides the fact that jobs like this “build character,” it gives one an appreciation of what hard work really is. That being said, there are quite a few cleaner alternatives when looking for a lesson in a hard day’s work, but with over 200 active ads online for flood relief jobs in Calgary, it’s hard not to recognize the ease of getting a job like this.

To get hired, all one needs is a social insurance number (SIN) card, a photo ID and steel-toed boots. There is no interview. You walk into one of the businesses and tell them you’re here for a job. Most companies give you an orientation, then pack you onto a bus and take you to the job site that needs attention for eight to 12 hours. The average pay is $14–18 an hour for basic labour work. While some students in Victoria are stuck searching day in and day out for any job that will pay even minimum wage, one almost feels bad that job searching in Alberta is this easy — but then you actually start working, and that feeling seems to drift away. So is it worth it? If you’re the type of person that can’t sit still and knows a thing or two about work ethic, then you’ll fit in just fine, but this job isn’t for everyone. Only half of the hundred new employees that the small company I worked for signed after the flood remained by the time I left.

I met every type of person, from every walk of life, during my stint with the asbestos and mould remediation crew: a young guy, just 18 years old, who was kicked out of high school and looking to make a career in the trades; an older man just released from a short stint in prison, who has been doing asbestos work his entire life; a stout chain-smoking middle-aged woman looking for a quick buck between jobs; and a South African man who’s saving up to start a transportation company back in his home country. No one is sure how long the work will last, but they all show up every day and grind through 10 hours with little complaint. I find it makes getting up for 8:30 a.m. classes a little more manageable when you know that, instead of scrubbing insulation off steel studs for 10 hours, you just have a couple lectures to sit through.

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