Tewantin’s Rachel Bourne and her son, Mason, 5, haven’t seen their husband and father for months due to FIFO restrictions. Picture: Patrick Woods
Tewantin’s Rachel Bourne and her son, Mason, 5, haven’t seen their husband and father for months due to FIFO restrictions. Picture: Patrick Woods

‘How many sleeps until daddy comes home?’

Five-year-old Mason Bourne looks up at his mother and asks "how many sleeps until daddy comes home?"

His mother, Tewantin's Rachel Bourne, has no words that will comfort him.

Her husband, Grey, is halfway across the country, and won't be home for weeks.

Mrs Bourne is one of many Sunshine Coast residents whose partners are fly-in fly-out workers, separating them from their loved ones for days, weeks, months at a time.

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So-called FIFO workers choose a different life - one that might mean they will miss birthdays, sport and reunions in exchange for better wages.

But, since the coronavirus pandemic unleashed its fury on the world, many in the FIFO community have been left "ignored and scared for the future".

Three of those Sunshine Coast-based partners have spoken out to explain what it is like to deal with these new challenges.

 

Rachel Bourne and her son, Mason, 5, miss their husband and father, Grey, dearly. Photo Patrick Woods
Rachel Bourne and her son, Mason, 5, miss their husband and father, Grey, dearly. Photo Patrick Woods

 

They say many of the FIFO workers are required to quarantine for two weeks prior to working away, and two weeks on the way back.

It's a time they feel is over the top and time that is having damaging long-term effects.

This, the women say, is despite the mine sites or oil rigs being COVID-19 safe and located in remote areas away from known hot spots.

These women are pleading with all levels of government to allow their boyfriends, partners and husbands to be included in the exemptions list.

A state government spokesman said all decisions regarding the coronavirus pandemic and border restrictions were based on the expert medical advice of the chief health officer.

"Government, health authorities and the industry have worked closely together to protect the workforce and the communities they live and work in, while maintaining operations," the spokesman said.

Further questions were put to the state government on whether it would consider exempting FIFO workers.

The questions fell on deaf ears.

So here are just three stories of what Sunshine Coast FIFO workers and their partners are going through and why they are pleading for urgent exemptions.

*****

My husband's mental health is at risk

Noosa mum Sharona Webb's husband Tim is in the midst of a three-week shift working away in the Bass Strait.

Instead of his usual three-on, three-off roster, he will spend two weeks in quarantine, work for three weeks and then again quarantine for another two weeks.

 

Sharona Webb and her children, Olivia, 10, Jake, 4, and Madi, 13 have major issues over the FIFO exemption policy. Photo Patrick Woods
Sharona Webb and her children, Olivia, 10, Jake, 4, and Madi, 13 have major issues over the FIFO exemption policy. Photo Patrick Woods

 

But Mrs Webb said her situation was easy, compared to others.

"At least I have seen him. If only for two weeks," she said.

Mr Webb's rig is considered COVID-19 safe.

When he leaves for home, he jumps on a helicopter to mainland Victoria where he hops on a COVID-19 safe bus to Tullamarine Airport. Then home.

"It's airtight," she said.

"We are talking about a billion dollar industry. They have to be safe.

"But because he walks through the airport which is classed as a hotspot, he has to be quarantined.

"This is even when Tim walks through with full personal protective equipment (PPE)."

Chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young has publicly expressed sympathy for Mr Webb's case.

She told reporters at a press conference on Friday she had exempted FIFO workers travelling through airports from quarantining.

But then Tullamarine airport experienced yet another coronavirus outbreak.

The solution, she said, would be if Mr Webb's employer could transport workers to a different airport instead.

"I really do feel for him and I hope that his employer can do some work there to sort it out so that it can be managed better than what it is," she said.

"But it is purely about the risk of going through Tullamarine airport. So there are other airports they might be able to work through."

Mrs Webb said she feared for the mental health, not only her husband, but his colleagues both immediate and afar.

"All this puts him in a situation which risks his mental health. He either will put up with the four weeks or he needs to leave his job," she said.

"But that's not an option for us.

"There's so much uncertainty.

"It changes often and half the time we don't know when he will come home, or when he will have to go into quarantine.

"When you look at sporting events and the teams, and see the exemptions made for them, you do question it.

"FIFO workers and mining and gas is one of the backbone industries of the economy."

*****

"I haven't seen my husband since March"

Landsborough mum Shae Gaukrodger hasn't seen her husband, Grant, since March.

The young senior driller has been working away, living in a caravan in Port Headland, WA, without phone reception, a TV, or many of his home's comforts.

 

Landsborough mum Shae Gaukrodger hasn’t seen her partner Grant since March given the restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic.
Landsborough mum Shae Gaukrodger hasn’t seen her partner Grant since March given the restrictions around the coronavirus pandemic.

 

Mrs Gaukrodger, who has three young kids, said it made "no sense" her husband was not exempt from quarantine given he worked in a remote area.

"It makes no sense that he is not exempt to fly home as he is working in such a remote area with only 39 others and we do not live in a hotspot," Ms Gaukrodger said.

"He gets tested for any and all viruses and includes thermal screening and blood tests, plus having to fill out declarations.

"If they have any virus at all they are stood down and not allowed to fly in or out. These workers are of no risk to others.

"The government and premier need to make allowances for these workers to receive exemptions so they can live some form of normal life."

*****

"My five-year-old asks questions I have no answers for"

Tewantin mother-of-four Rachel Bourne does not expect to see her husband, Grey, until late September.

By then it will have been about 10 weeks he has been away working at a remote nickel mine in Western Australia.

 

Rachel Bourne and her children, Samantha, 11, Mason, 5, Pippa, 9, and Taylor, 12. Picture: Patrick Woods
Rachel Bourne and her children, Samantha, 11, Mason, 5, Pippa, 9, and Taylor, 12. Picture: Patrick Woods

 

Mr Bourne is forced to work long stints away to justify spending four weeks in quarantine.

"He won't be back until September, a couple of months over there," Mrs Bourne said.

"We haven't seen him since early July.

"It's so challenging and it doesn't need to be this year. He is more than happy to be tested on return but it's the quarantine that's the problem."

Mrs Bourne cried as she spoke about the toll it had taken on her young family.

"My five-year-old son Mason keeps asking 'how many sleeps until daddy comes home'," she said.

"Mason doesn't understand it.

"You get used to them missing birthdays and I know FIFO lifestyle is something that we choose, but it is getting too much.

"An exemption to quarantine would be fantastic."

*****

Letter to the Premier pleading for change

Ms Gaukrodger included a letter to premier Annastacia Palaszczuk pleading for her help.

In her letter, she praised the state government's handling of the coronavirus crisis but asked for her husband, and others, to be included in the exemptions.

"Since March, these men and women have been separated from their loved ones," the letter reads.

"It is heartbreaking that we can have people travelling for holidays interstate but our FIFO workers are stranded.

"Our lives are in limbo, this cannot continue.

"From the bottom of my heart, I urge you to put forward a proposal to the other premiers to allow our FIFO workforce to return to their normal roster or a roster that suits our 'new normal'.

"It is time that our FIFO workforce are treated fairly, and we need to strongly focus on the mental health and wellbeing of our FIFO workers and their families."


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