Oilpatch workers face pay cuts, layoffs as companies react to low prices

Current downturn has hit the Calgary-based oilfield services sector hardest.

April 6, 2020   by Dan Healing

CALGARY — Budget cuts in the western Canadian oil and gas sector are hitting home for front-line workers who are facing smaller paycheques as well as an ever-increasing risk of being laid off.

Oil sands producer Cenovus Energy Inc. responded to low global oil prices with its second capital spending cut in less than a month, along with the suspension of its quarterly dividend and a five per cent reduction in production guidance for 2020.

The company announced executive salaries would fall by between 12% and 25%, similar to what many other Canadian companies have implemented in recent weeks.

But it added that employees at lower levels will take smaller graduated salary reductions as part of a plan for Cenovus to save $50 million in general and administration costs this year.


The current oil price depths – blamed on a combination of lower demand because of the COVID-19 pandemic and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia – is reminiscent of 2015, when a crash in global oil prices led to an estimated 40,000 direct job losses from the Canadian upstream oil and gas industry.

Salary reductions do seem to be a more common method to control costs in the current environment than in the last downturn, said Carol Howes, vice-president of communications with energy labour data firm PetroLMI.

“This time we are seeing more effort to reduce salaries and maintain staffing because companies are already very lean,” she said.

Direct jobs in the oilfield exploration, production, service and pipeline professions numbered 178,400 in January, compared to a peak of 225,900 in 2014, and a low of 173,400 in July 2016, she said.

The current downturn has hit the Calgary-based oilfield services sector hardest – the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors estimates its members have slashed their workforces by between 20% and 50% this year.

Late last week, Calfrac Well Services Ltd. announced it would cut its 2020 capital budget to $100 million from $155 million.

The company, which provides hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” and other well completion services in Canada, the US, Argentina and Russia, said it would reduce the number of crews being deployed in its North American operations from 19 to nine, resulting in a 40% downsizing of its workforce in the US and Canada.

It also announced executive salaries would be reduced by 10% and remaining employees’ pay cut by five to 10 per cent. It added it would also eliminate retirement savings matching contributions.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers estimates that the direct plus indirect job count in the upstream oil and gas sector fell from 744,000 in 2014 to 495,000 in 2016 before rising to 528,000 in 2017, the last year for which it has statistics.

CAPP’s forecast last year of slightly higher spending in conventional oil and gas and the oil sands in 2020 compared to 2019 is no longer valid, said Ben Brunnen, CAPP’s vice-president of oil sands, fiscal and economic policy.

Canadian producers announced more than $6 billion in capital expenditure cuts in March, he estimated, reducing their capital spending programs by an average of about 30 per cent.

“The Canadian oil and natural gas industry is accustomed to the rise and fall of global market conditions and in the past we were better positioned to deal with it,” he said.

Factors including delayed or cancelled export pipeline projects, stagnant commodity prices and recent railroad blockades have made the industry less able to attract investment and less resilient in the face of the current price crisis, he said.