With the constant struggle to find employment on the Coast, it seems there is a growing number of families who have husbands and loved ones working in Fly In Fly Out jobs otherwise known as FIFO.
FIFO is a means to transport employees to mining or construction sites without having to relocate the families. Many working sites are in areas that are lacking in education and health facilities to service the families, therefore only the employee is flown in and then flown home for days of rest after the completion of their shift. This can mean days, even weeks of families being apart.
To the onlooker, it is not so apparent but when engaging in conversation, the struggles and adjustments required, begin to rear their heads. For some it is a blessing and their roster allows them to enjoy more time together on the weeks home, but for others it is a daily struggle to keep the home fires burning while they look forward to having their family together again.
It’s not often that you get to sit in a room of people and talk about the metaphorical elephant, but I recently had this privilege. Initially a little reticent, it didn’t take long for the group to relax as they shared their experiences, struggles, joys and sorrows and realised they all shared a similar story even though each family represented a different stage of life.
Sarah is engaged to be married to Rikki. Lisa, married to Delbert, is a young mum with two small children. Paul and Suanne have older children and only one at home, and Verneice, married to Nick, is enjoying living near the beach.
“It’s a dynamic industry,” says Paul who has been working on and off in the mines since he was 25. “If you can stick it out, it’s a good career. It’s volatile but it helps you out financially.”
For the first ten years of his mining career, Paul worked close to home being only 30 minutes from the underground coal mines. Although it was long hours in the mines, he lived close enough that it didn’t interfere too much with family life.
They then decided to move to Queensland for a lifestyle change but after six years of working on the Coast, Paul went back to working in the mines in Wollongong and because of the distance it was now necessary to Fly In Fly Out. The roster he was on at the time wasn’t friendly and with children at home, things became increasingly difficult.
“The roster is everything,” says Paul, “if you get a good roster you can make it work.” But for this season, the pressures on family and relationships were too difficult and escalated, until one day Paul received the call from Suanne he knew was coming. “I can’t do this anymore,” she said, “just resign.”
Without hesitation, Paul handed in his resignation and drove straight through the night from Sydney to the Sunshine Coast.
“Sometimes it can take it’s toll and come to a head,” says Paul, “You have to know when to pull the pin. Your family has to come first.”
After a few years of working on the coast, he returned to the mines two years ago but this time he is working in Queensland. They now enjoy a roster of seven days on, seven days off which suits them to a tee!
“Every second week is like a holiday,” says Suanne. “I get all my work done and book my hair dressing clients in for the week he’s away. I even mow the lawn so that we can spend as much time together as possible when he is home. Don’t get me wrong, the challenges are still there, but we know it is just for a short time and we can manage knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Unfortunately, not all rosters are so accommodating. With two little children to look after, Lisa has to fill the role of the mum and dad when her husband Delbert is working. Having met Delbert in America, these high-school sweethearts had been dealing with long work hours in the oilfield with little home time for seven years before moving to Australia.
In America, Delbert regularly worked 15+ hour shifts, some days even beyond 24 hours without rest. His most common roster was 10 days on and 4 days off. With such exhaustive working conditions, Delbert and Lisa took the opportunity two years ago to move to Australia for a roster of two weeks on and two weeks off with 12 hour shifts.
“It was hard to make the move,” says Lisa, “but it was a better opportunity than what we had over there. It’s still really hard though.” Lisa chokes back tears as she relates the daily struggles she has to overcome when Delbert is working. She tells how they can only talk to each other on a satellite phone for a few minutes at night, but are grateful they can email.
“It’s especially hard when someone gets sick,” she says. Lisa remembers the words of the supervisor at a FIFO function before they left America, “This is a family job. It’s not just the husbands working, the women have to put in more work as well.”
Lisa feels she has become stronger and more resilient because of [his] job.
“You get used to it but it doesn’t mean you like it. I learn to be a stronger person.”
Another young Mum, Trudi, tells of her life as a FIFO family with her husband doing contract work on pipeline construction projects in Australia. Adam has spent most of his working life in this industry. Now that their eldest of two children is school aged, they have settled down on the Sunshine Coast after living in three different states together.
This work has been fruitful but challenging for them as there are no guarantees of the duration of each contract. They have learnt to be organised with their daily routines and managing finances to make sure they are prepared for periods between contracts. Adam must be ready to pick up and leave, sometimes with only a day’s notice before the next contract begins.
With shifts of often three weeks on and one week home, Trudi and Adam are usually able to keep in contact by telephone at the end of each day, but Adam says it is easier if he focuses on the work as much as possible while he is there. If he thinks about the family too much, he misses them more and it makes the work harder to bear. For this reason, Trudi saves most of the family updates for when he gets home and can then enjoy quality time together.
Verneice’s husband and Sarah’s fiance are on four weeks away with six or seven days home.
“You see couples out at BBQs and together on Sundays and you feel the absence,” says Sarah. “I feel bad for Rikki, that he doesn’t get to go to those things with me. He is stuck in a little room at the end of a work shift and I feel bad that I have a whole house to move around in.”
Sarah’s gratefulness to her fiance for the sacrifice he is making to give them a financial head-start is evident and uplifting, but the loneliness hits hard. At the end of his rosters, she makes the drive to Brisbane with much enthusiasm, even though it is often in the early hours of the morning.
Verniece, who has been married to her husband Nick for 39 years, comes from a family of construction workers.
“Construction work is mentally and physically challenging on it’s own excluding challenges of family concerns wherever their home base is located,” says Verniece. “Nick works some 12 hour days on the liquid natural gas construction site and has his day off on the 13th day of work.”
Nick was one of the mining bosses in Karratha, WA, where Verniece managed Lifeline for one and a half years. She then went on to work as the Drug and Alcohol counsellor/educator for Pilbara Mental Health and Drug Service for three and a half years.
“I was working out of the office of Community Health mostly, and providing outreach service delivery to the Department of Corrective Services in their office. I would visit Roebourne Prison to give psycho-education on substance misuse and would fly with the Flying Doctors to other parts of the remote Pilbara area.”
“It’s really tough,” says Verneice. “I’ve seen both sides of the coin. I’ve listened to the men who have needed help and I have also seen it from the side of the wife who feels the absence of her husband. I understand both sides of it and want to help.”
Having moved back to Mooloolaba two years ago, Verniece has a heart to see families connected with others who are in similar situations. She is now working to bring people together. She says the isolation can be extremely difficult and that staying in contact with people is vital. Going weeks on end without being able to see each other can be heart-wrenching and lonely.
“When all is said and done, you have to make the best of your situation, whatever it is.”
When I asked the group what tips they have found that have helped them the most, this is what they shared:
* Give it a time limit – make goals – be able to see the end
* Make sure your relationships, including with the children, come first – stay connected
* If at all possible, get a good roster
* Take every opportunity to communicate through-out each day, even if it’s an email of every day events
* Have things to look forward to
* Make the most of home time – plan home-time activities in advance – be sure to have mundane jobs done earlier so time together is quality time
* Look for the positives, be positive
* Be grateful for the work opportunities and solid income
* Have a good network of supportive people around you. Be honest and open with each other.
* Have an exit strategy.
If you are a FIFO family and need support, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published in the Good Life Magazine, Autumn 2014
(c)Rebecca Moore 2014