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Energy and Resources Oil sands producers helping workers affected by Fort McMurray wildfire

A man walks through the evacuee camp for the people who fled the Fort McMurray wildfires in Wandering River, Alberta, Canada, Monday May 9, 2016.

Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Oil sands producers are helping their Fort McMurray employees forced from their homes by the northern Alberta wildfire with access to an array of emergency financial supports, including loans, per diems and, in some cases, sizable lump-sum payments.

As oil sands producers work to return to close-to-normal operations in the days and weeks ahead, many are continuing to pay workers their regular wages. But some are taking further steps to help employees who were evacuated from the city because of the fires earlier this month. For instance, even as its Surmont steam-driven project remains closed, ConocoPhillips Canada is giving affected workers $5,000 each for emergency housing and food, plus access to a $10,000 interest-free loan.

Royal Dutch Shell PLC started off with a per diem system for hotel and food costs for its workers displaced by the fire in the days following the evacuation of almost 90,000 Fort McMurray residents.

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But the company realized that keeping track of expenses might be too onerous for recent evacuees and decided to instead provide its Fort McMurray oil sands employees with a $6,000 lump sum payment.

"It's available for residents of Fort McMurray who have been evacuated," Shell spokesman Cameron Yost said.

"We want to do what we can to support them through this difficult journey they're on right now."

Shell is using fly in/fly out workers at its Albian Sands operation, where production has resumed at reduced rates. Albian Sands employs roughly 2,700 people, Mr. Yost said, and Shell said the majority of those employees are based in Fort McMurray. Locally based employees are being told to return only if they're willing and available. The company is also offering interest-free loans.

Syncrude Canada Ltd. is giving its workers based in Fort McMurray an advance on an existing incentive plan, said Will Gibson, a spokesman for the company. About 4,600 of the joint venture operation's 4,800 employees will be eligible to access the advance, he said. Syncrude is also providing special compensation for employees who worked long hours responding to the fire and helping evacuees.

"Our employees have looked after us so we'll look after them," Mr. Gibson said. "They've shone in helping us deal with the biggest challenge faced by our organization in our history, as well as the wider community."

Canada's largest oil company, Suncor Energy Inc., is allowing employees early access to their company savings plan and Sun Life Financial, which administers the plan, has waived the related penalties. The oil sands firm is also giving the displaced employees quicker access to a quarterly retention payment, part of their compensation packages.

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Imperial Oil Ltd. is offering employee disaster assistance loans to workers affected by the fires.

All adult evacuees driven out of Fort McMurray this month, including oil sands employees, are eligible to receive $600 in emergency funds, plus $300 for each dependent, from the Canadian Red Cross. The Alberta government is also distributing debit cards worth $1,250 for eligible adults and $500 for children.

While other Fort McMurray area employers, large and small, have tried to give their employees some pay or money in the wake of the disaster, many do not have the resources of oil sands companies. Workers are being directed to apply for the expedited Employment Insurance process for Fort McMurray residents.

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