Abuse of city workers worse than reported: union
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City of Winnipeg library workers are so used to being harassed and subjected to aggressive behaviour many have given up reporting it to their employer, their union says.
“City employees, the amount of abuse that they take is, probably, beyond what anybody could comprehend or even realize,” said Gord Delbridge, president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.
The fatal stabbing of 28-year-old Tyree Cayer at the Millennium Library on Dec. 11, 2022, became a lightning rod for the issue of safety in the downtown facility, which is also used by vulnerable people seeking respite from the cold.
It marked the city’s 51st homicide of the year; four teens have been charged, including a 14-year-old accused of second-degree murder.
Delbridge said the city’s statistics on incidents recorded at the downtown library and neighbourhood branches in 2022 fail to show the magnitude of the problem.
At Millennium, 675 incidents were reported — almost 10 times more than the second-highest location (St. Boniface branch, 75); at the Osborne branch, 43 reports were filed. The city says such incidents include violence, threats, harassment, intoxication and medical issues, including injuries.
Only one branch, the Charleswood library, reported no incidents last year.
Delbridge said he believes the numbers fail to reflect the scope of the abuse workers are forced to endure. “There’s no question that library members would unanimously agree with me in making that statement.”
It extends to city workers at pools, rec centres and arenas, data for which isn’t available, the labour leader added.
“We hear from city workers all over the place,” Delbridge said. “One of the things is that I think there’s a different perception when you’re dealing with the public service sometimes… There’s an expectation there from the general public, that is much higher, there’s a higher level of scrutiny.”
The Millennium has yet to fully reopen; only returns and pickups are available. CUPE has filed a health and safety grievance over workers’ concerns about safely reopening to patrons.
Delbridge said he wouldn’t comment on the details of the grievance, which was filed last month, but said it identified inadequacies in how the city addressed staff concerns.
“At the Millennium, as well as other facilities, we’re aware that there are often reports of violent incidents taking place and threats, and it just stemmed as a result of many ongoing incidents that had kept coming to our attention,” he said.
“We just felt that, at that point in time, that there wasn’t adequate protocol put in place.”
City staff receive safety training, which includes the basic Workplace Safety and Health Act and regulations training, and specifics relating to their job.
City communications officer Adam Campbell said library workers are trained to remove themselves from violent incidents.
“Employees receive training on what to do in the event of a safety incident, which includes removing themselves to a safe location, obtaining immediate assistance, and contacting emergency services (as required), as well as reporting the incident to their supervisor,” Campbell wrote in an email.
Delbridge said the union has advocated for changes to training; it also wants to review the city’s health and safety committee minutes.
“I know, just from coming out of the libraries, there was a lot of concerns that we felt that weren’t being addressed and need to be addressed,” he said. “And I suspect that’s likely to be the case in other sectors as well.”
Delbridge said the municipal government alone cannot tackle all the problems that have sparked the increase in crime.
“I don’t think the entire burden should be put on the municipality of the City of Winnipeg. I think the provincial government has to put resources in place to address these problems, as well. I think everyone knows that that’s where we’ve really got to focus.”
Some Winnipeggers visiting city-run facilities recently said they’ve just stopped going to the Millennium Library.
Monica Evans, who works in special education, used to take her students there.
She said the rise in violent incidents made her and the children feel unsafe. Eventually, she was forced to move her field trips to the Fort Garry recreational centre, where she said she’s never run into problems.
“That’s before the stabbing… I still wouldn’t take kids there up until then, and now for sure — never. But here, absolutely, and other neighbourhoods in the city as well,” she said.
Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.