Eight Sly bros workers lost everything in the Northern Rivers floods.

In March, we wrote about the devastating floods that had destroyed the homes and possessions of eight of the 22-strong Sly Bros workforce, as well as severely impacting properties and possessions for several more in the Lismore region and causing enormous damage to the Woodburn-based company.

Cousins David and Mark Sly, who run the family-owned company, had spoken with Kersten Gentle for her F&T Time podcast about the speed with which the record-breaking flood rose, the heroism of the locals in coordinating their own rescues, the impossibility of getting flood insurance on many local properties and the stresses of applying for relief payments.

Then, at the end of March, the rains came back and the waters rose again.

I spoke with David Sly a week after the second flood. He sounded tired and determined. And a bit unimpressed with the official response. “We’ve been trying to get answers for over a month now,” he told me. “We’ve been nominated as a critical business for the region and informed there will be support, but we still don’t know what that means in terms of assistance. If we knew, we could plan better. As it is, all our plans are subject to change as we learn more”

Basic questions are still unanswered. “I even went to Services Australia to ask about my employees qualifying for assistance,” says David. “The conditions say that my employees aren’t to be working or not to be paid for them to qualify for assistance: does that mean I have to sack them and pay their entitlements? They couldn’t say.”

After the first flood, David set up a GoFundMe account specifically to raise money for the eight employees who had lost everything. In the months since the fundraiser was launched, with a goal of $100,000, just over $40,000 has been pledged to help rebuild employees’ homes, with many well-known industry names appearing on the donor list. Other businesses have donated money and materials on top, which is one heartening thing in an otherwise exhausting period.

“My employees were moving forward with their houses and then they got flooded again,” David says. “Half the houses went under. Only on the lower storey not in the upper storey this time; this one was a proper flood, the other one was a catastrophic storm.”

The difference equals an easier time for some insurance claims, but the fresh damage just as the clean-up really got underway has weighed heavily on many of the people forced out of their homes.

“Our little town of Woodburn is a ghost town,” says David. “I’d say 95% of the homes are uninhabitable. People have had to leave to find shelter. The biggest threat is once they’re gone, they might not come back.”

Everyone who can has been taking in those made homeless. “We were fortunate, we had a couple of houses at Evans Head,” David says. “My mum passed away a year ago and I was just about to rent out her house, now we’ve got two families in there. Other people are with family members or in Brisbane.”

While the Sly Bros team are securely housed, others in the region have been forced out of temporary accommodation due to school holiday bookings. David says, “The sister-in-law of one of my employees has moved three times in six weeks.”

All the uncertainty is weighing heavily on locals. Two of the Sly Bros employees don’t know whether they’ll be back, and with only 20 staff that’s 10% of the workforce in an already tight labour market.

“The majority of my staff are long term, up to 50 years,” says David. “Most of these older blokes have lost a lot, including a couple who were very close to retirement and have lost their homes. Now what do they do? Do they have to keep working? More than likely. They’ll be putting their hand in their back pocket to rebuild their homes because they can’t afford flood insurance and government assistance in NSW isn’t as much as in Queensland and is so difficult to access.”

Sly Bros is one of the leading F&T and timber products suppliers for the Lismore region and one of the few still operating locally. They’re an essential part of the local recovery. In March, David told Kersten: “Our first priority is to get that truss shed up and running. Builders can build frames if they really have to, though preferably not, but they can’t build trusses.”

By early April, the timber sales operation was back up and David told me, “I’ll have my truss plant operational the week after next at a small capacity.”

After that a staged return to full capacity will follow, based on equipment availability. “We’re going from three trucks to one because that’s what we can afford right now. It’s a $350,000 investment. The saw, that’s half a million; repairing equipment, there’s probably another $200K; electricals, probably another $150,000 on top. It just keeps going. I haven’t even touched my office. We think it’s $4.75 million in total, and the only things insurance will pay on are mobile plant and about $60,000 for what was loaded and lost.”

Partner businesses have offered enormous support, including help with rentals, financing and everything else they can do to get the business fully operational again. “Ed at Vekta, Pryda, Multinail, Tilling, ITI and Hyne – they’ve all just been ringing up asking ‘what can we do?’”David says. “David Compton at DFC Timbers had a forklift he was selling and he just gave it to me priority at a very good rate.”

Along with helping to secure and rebuild housing for the team, returning the business to full operation is a priority for David and Mark and the rest of the Sly family owners.

“The most important thing is my employees get their houses back up. But they’re also worried: have they got a job?” David has been upfront in saying: “Yes, they do. Some worry I’m just saying that, others worry about our costs and have come in and offered: ‘I can go work for someone else for six months if I need to.’ I’ve said, whoa there. I’ve got a responsibility to you guys to keep you employed. And that’s what’s happening. We’re still paying them as per normal.”

Before the election was called, the Sly Bros team were just one of the Northern Rivers businesses advocating for an Emergency JobKeeper response. Such a scheme would mean one application for assistance from the employer (the person most likely to have offsite back-ups of all their paperwork after a disaster), rather than a separate set of forms for every worker, asking for information many of them have no access to. Additionally, it would keep the business and employee connected and help both to survive the disaster period and swing back into production as soon as possible. Arthur Potter from the FTMA Board and multiple other industry figures lobbied hard in Canberra, alas, nothing happened before the government went into caretaker mode.

“Your employee shouldn’t have to go through and fill out 16 pages of crap when they’ve lost everything,” David says. “It should be just a simple flick and tick: has your employer lost more than 30% or 50% of their income? Yes? Done. Let’s put that money straight into the employer’s account and then they pay it to the employee. It’s got me absolutely stuffed why they haven’t come up with that.”

David jokes ruefully about it being a good way for the company to enter its hundredth year, the centenary being in 2023, but you can hear the tiredness when he talks about the Surf Club having to cancel many of their own centennial celebrations this year after the area has already missed so much due to Covid. When we spoke, he was looking forward to going camping with family and friends over Easter, “but the simple fact is that the people we’re camping with all lost businesses or homes as well, so we’re all going to be talking about it. Am I sleeping? Yeah not too bad. Right now we’re dealing with the planning and that’s keeping us going. In the future, there are counsellors up here: we’re going to need them.”

To donate to the Sly Bros fundraiser, visit www.gofundme.com/f/employees-of-sly-bros-who-have-lost-everything or find the link to the podcast at https://ftmanews.com/ft-time-with-kersten-gentle/

If you need someone to talk to, call: Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978.

Image: Sly Bros’ mill four days after the first flood. Locals had parked their cars on the high ground near the sawmill, more than half a metre above previous flood record levels, to keep them safe. The water from the Feb 28 flood had come down by a metre when this picture was taken. Photo courtesy David Sly.