As I write this, my camp is preparing to mobilize in just 24 hours for the start our tree planting season. I’ve been working on this post sporadically for a few months, but until now I didn’t feel that it was the “right time” to publish an annual commentary. I was hoping that Covid would be on the decline by the time Interior operations got started, and that I’d be able to provide a postmortem. Instead, the next few months will be more challenging than 2020.
Review of the 2020 Season
Let’s look back at the 2020 season for a few minutes. In retrospect, we’re in an advantageous situation right now. Compared to 2020, we’re almost properly prepared to commence field operations. On this date twelve months ago, we didn’t even know if there would be a tree planting season. It wasn’t until Sunday night, April 19th (2020) that I sensed we’d be allowed to mobilize, and I rapidly sent out an email to my crews to tell them that it was worth gambling on booking their flights. Fast forward to today, and our planning looks very different. We have plans in place to deal with many different Covid-related contingencies, whereas last year we were flying by the seat of our pants.
We were lucky in 2020. Not a single camp had a known case of Covid. And that’s what matters the most, because at the end of the season, it’s not a healthy bank account that matters – it’s the health of the employees. Can we do the same this year?
Another notable thing about 2020 was that prices continued to trend slightly upward, extending the recovery that started the previous year. While there’s always more room for upward growth, it seemed that more workers considered their wages to be fair, and when they returned home at the end of the season, they were more likely to tell friends that the job “wasn’t so bad.”
By the fall, owners were feeling very relieved. Many of them had been staring at the prospect of potential bankruptcy, but the lack of Covid in the camps meant that all the planting companies survived, and will continue operating in 2021.
As viewing season rolled around, the only notable excitement was a very strange policy shift by the provincial government, which saw some MOFLNROD and BCTS offices hiding submitted bid numbers on their public tenders. It is regrettable that, absent a Freedom of Information Act request, agencies playing with the public purse feel that they should not be held accountable for sharing information about major costs. This of course wasn’t the case at every office.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Although collusion before a bid is opened would be illegal, there are no restrictions about talking about bids that have already opened. Almost all of the planting contractors in the industry got together and shared their numbers (behind the scenes) after each bid was opened, and we had a very good ongoing picture of where the bids were trending. In the end, I believe that this policy of non-disclosure probably worked against the government agencies, rather than in their favour.
By the way, the industry planted it's nine billionth tree in British Columbia in 2020! That means that there will be a big milestone coming up in 2023.
Everyone is pretty sick of hearing about Covid, so I won’t dwell on it. However, it’s the obvious elephant in the room, so I can’t skip over it.
The government has been a leader in ensuring that incremental Covid-related costs do not force a significant portion of the sector into bankruptcy. Licensees have followed, albeit some with reluctance (despite the forest industry’s record-high lumber prices). Known costs (extra staffing and supplies) have been addressed on a cost-sharing basis between industry and clients, with some help from various levels of government.
However, one very significant issue remains, and that relates to the expectation of significant incremental costs when Covid gets into camps. Notice that I said “when,” not “if.” The industry has approximately 80 mobile tent camps, most of whom house anywhere from thirty to a hundred planters or more. Based upon the prevalence of Covid within the general population, the odds that an infected worker comes into camp are approximately thirty times higher now than they were in 2020. I’ve already heard of numerous planters who have tested positive in the past two weeks, and it is obvious that a number of planting camps are going to experience case clusters this season. With the recent PHO orders indicating that a PHO shutdown is possible for any cluster of three or more cases, this means that some camps will almost certainly be shut down for 14-day circuit breakers this season, which means that project completion dates will have to be pushed back.
Nobody is talking about it right now, but I feel that the season will necessarily need to be extended this year, as companies attempt to help each other catch up on missed deadlines. Of course, this will be entirely dependent on exactly how the PHO approaches their shutdown protocols. It will be a tricky situation, because a camp that has a cluster of cases can’t just drive into the local community and book motel rooms for two weeks. They’ll have to remain sequestered in the bush, and it will be necessary for employers to continue feeding and taking care of workers.
Testing has been brought up repeatedly as one part of a mitigation strategy. It would be great if the industry had widespread access to rapid-result tests that could be administered to the entire workforce every three days for the first three weeks of the season. However, resources don’t currently exist to support that strategy.
Vaccinations are also on everyone’s wish lists. Although they wouldn’t be mandatory, enough planters would seek to be vaccinated that the camps would essentially reach herd immunity. However, considering the length of the season, and the time that it takes for administered vaccines to build immunity within individuals, that strategy would lose most of its impact unless it could be pulled off in the first half of May. Even then, it takes time for the vaccination to kick in, and workers are not “fully” immunized until after a second dose. Regardless, vaccinations would still be very beneficial to most individuals, as evidence seems to indicate that even after a first dose, persons who still manage to contract Covid generally don’t get as sick.
The PHO has an evolving vaccination strategy that is currently targeting some hot spots in specific communities and industrial work sites. But will that extend to BC’s forty-five hundred tree planters, or will they be forgotten in the woods? I’m sure that a few other provinces are grappling with the same problem, although it seems that BC is the only province that recognizes its tree planters as a culturally unique and economically significant workforce. Also, many planters are from out-of-province, and remain concerned about vaccine eligibility while working for British Columbia.
We’ve seen big improvements over the past six months in the ways that many companies are addressing the prevention of bullying and harassment. This is a major shift that got a foothold after the January 2020 WFCA Conference, but which was partially derailed by Covid a few months later. However, I’m now seeing a much better understanding throughout the industry of the need to address the prevalence of harassment. And certainly, the industry’s tolerance for inappropriate behaviour is much lower now than it has been in the past. Many companies have also realized that while gender parity is very close to being achieved at a planter level, there is still a woeful inadequacy of women in upper management and at the ownership level. That can’t be changed overnight, but we need to challenge ourselves to change that weakness in the next three years.
Mental Health is being recognized more than ever before. Covid helped to kick-start that revolution, as companies became acutely aware of the challenges that planters had to deal with in isolation camps. Again, that’s an area which is seeing improvement. A number of the larger companies have been offering psychological first aid courses to all levels of management, and there is current talk about industry-wide support programs such as one potential program that Tim Tchaida and other WFCA members are examining.
Finally, back to Covid, our society has a better familiarity with constant use of masks. While that won’t make 2021 any more enjoyable than 2020, it won’t feel so unfamiliar to be wearing masks constantly in camps and trucks. And while there are always some planters that disagree with mask rules, and resist the concept of testing and vaccinations, the majority of the workforce recognizes that we need to work together for our own individual good. If planters are careless coming into the season, it’s not just their own health that is at risk. The bigger risk is a shutdown of their crew or camp. As with masks, you don’t follow the rules to protect yourself; you follow them to protect everyone around you.
I’ve talked to more than a dozen other supervisors over the past few weeks. We all recognize that the inevitable outbreaks in our camps will mean that this season will be a lot more challenging than in 2020, we understand the challenges.
Let’s get to work …
Previous SOTI posts: