04/28/2015 05:31 EDT | Updated 08/01/2015 01:00 EDT

Laid-off IOC janitors have mopped up 'more tears than dirt'

In one fell swoop, the Iron Ore Company of Canada completely eliminated an entire job classification at its sprawling operations in Labrador City earlier this month, meaning some of the longest serving — and mostly female — employees with the company will lose their livelihoods on June 14.

That job classification is labourer/janitor. They're the people who keep the lunchrooms and bathrooms clean.

"I've mopped up more tears in the last week, really, more tears than dirt, I think," said Wanda Head, one of the janitors who was told this earlier month that her job will soon evaporate. 

"My last week at work has just been horrible."

News that all 29 positions were being eliminated — part of a larger reduction of 150 workers — means the protection normally afforded to long-serving employees by the union's seniority list does not apply. 

Some have nearly 30 years of service, and being handed a layoff notice so late in their working careers came as a complete shock.

Head and colleagues Molly Delouche, Ann Reardon and Cecilia Byrne shared their stories with CBC News recently in an emotional interview that illustrates the human toll being exacted by a worldwide downturn in commodity prices.

Delouche, with 27 years on the job, is No. 138 on a seniority list of 1,400 workers represented by Local 5795 of the United Steelworkers.

That wasn't enough to save her job.

"Why would I think I'd lose my job. They never laid off like that before," said Delouche.

No so 'clear sailing'

When reports first started circulating, Reardon thought it was "clear sailing" for her, not believing for a second that she would be axed.

She was enjoying some vacation days at her cabin when she learned of her pending layoff.

Relaxation quickly turned to exasperation.

She kept thinking, "how do I go back to work and hold my head up … with pride, like I had over the years," she said, her voice breaking as she was overcome with emotion.

Jobs they thought would carry them through until retirement in a few years are now about to vanish, completely unravelling their lives.

Cecilia Byrne is just three years away from retirement.

"We were going to retire and enjoy life," she said.

Wanda Head is one of the more junior workers in the group, with 24 years of service with IOC.

She's a single mother, and her two children are graduating high school this spring. 

Retirement plans blown up

She had hoped to continue work until her children completed their post-secondary education and then retire for some well-earned "mom time."

That plan has now been shattered.

"Now I've got to find a way to get them through school and work for the rest of my life. So instead of retiring at 55, now I have to work, probably until I die because I won't even be eligible to draw for my pension, even if that's still going to be there, until I'm 65 years old," said Head.

The exodus of 25 females will also be a setback for gender equality at IOC, where union officials say just 30 per cent of employees are female.

It's part of the growing toll of job losses in Labrador West, where the fallout from last year's closure of nearby Wabush Mines is still being felt.

Ann Reardon and her family have been hit especially hard. Her husband Jerry and their daughter, Carrisa, both lost their jobs at Wabush Mines last year.

The women say workplace morale has plummeted in recent weeks, knowing that their days with IOC and their "family" of co-workers will soon end.