Staff shortages plague city services
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The City of Winnipeg is struggling with a labour shortage that has already reduced access to some public services and threatens to hinder others.
Winnipeg’s municipal government has launched multiple efforts to fill vacancies, including an ongoing ad campaign to recruit bus drivers and a previously announced program that pays for applicants’ training to become lifeguards.
“Because (the staff shortage) is such a problem, it’s affecting us being able to open specific amenities,” said Coun. Jeff Browaty.
Coun. John Orlikow echoed the concern.
“If we don’t have the (staff), we can’t provide the services that we want to provide to (Winnipeggers),” said Orlikow.
“If we don’t have the (staff), we can’t provide the services that we want to provide to (Winnipeggers).”–Coun. John Orlikow
In November, the city announced it will provide $1,500 worth of free training to each of about 60 successful applicants to become lifeguards, which will be funded by a Canada-Manitoba job grant. At the time, the city had just 220 lifeguards out of a full complement of 300, which delayed the reopening of Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex pool.
The applicants have since been chosen and are expected to complete their training in March.
In December, Winnipeg Transit revealed it was about 50 drivers short of a full complement of 1,100, which forced the service to rely on overtime to fill gaps.
After a record high 130 assaults on bus operators in 2022 (including verbal threats), the union that represents Winnipeg Transit drivers said a lack of safety on buses is the top obstacle to hiring.
“Just since I’ve taken over (as president on Jan. 1), probably about eight notices of assault have crossed my desk in about 2.5 weeks now. That ranges from verbal to physical contact, having things thrown at (drivers), beverages dumped on them,” said Chris Scott, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1505.
The union said the rising workload for drivers is magnified by the fact at least 150 additional drivers are away on medical leave.
“The impact is an excessive amount of overtime… in order to keep the service running,” said Scott.
Another key union leader said vacancies are plaguing many city departments.
“We’re down in mechanics… (At) libraries, they’re short. They’re short in recreation staff, lifeguards, swimming instructors and that’s having compounding effects. It’s put additional stress on existing employees that are having to do more with less support,” said Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500.
The city had 82 vacant library positions as of April 2022, up from 10 per cent in April 2020.
Last year, the city confirmed library hours were sometimes shortened due to a lack of employees.
Delbridge said that shortage remains, with library staff still transferred between facilities to help fill empty shifts. The heightened demands on remaining employees may lead some to quit, which could create even more vacancies, he said.
Delbridge said the city and CUPE signed a letter of understanding to co-operatively work on solutions to attract and keep staff, which he expects should help address the issue.
While the city’s woes are linked to a global labour shortage, the government also faces its own unique set of circumstances in finding and keeping employees, said David Camfield, an associate professor of labour studies at the University of Manitoba.
“In parts of the city of Winnipeg, the understaffing is so bad that the workloads and frustrations with the job are significant. It’s not just about money,” Camfield said.
He said the long-term effects of a 14-year municipal property tax freeze that ended in 2012 starved the city of revenue and left jobs vacant.
The professor said city jobs often don’t provide the highest salaries but may provide superior benefits.
“For people who are primarily concerned about wages, they can often find higher wages in the private sector,” Camfield said.
He believes the city’s employee recruitment efforts are also complicated by pandemic woes, since some potential candidates may have left the labour market due to long COVID illness, while others switched jobs to reduce their exposure to viruses.
“In parts of the city of Winnipeg, the understaffing is so bad that the workloads and frustrations with the job are significant. It’s not just about money.”–David Camfield, U of M
But the current job climate should change by next year, since rising interest rates are expected to trigger a recession and increase unemployment, Camfield added.
“It’s going to be more difficult for workers to be as selective as some workers can be right now,” he said.
In a brief email, city spokeswoman Tamara Forlanski stressed the cause of the shortage is not unique.
“The City of Winnipeg, like many organizations, is dealing with limited availability of qualified workers. This is a local, national, and international issue post-COVID, with many factors influencing this trend,” wrote Forlanski.
Forlanski said an exact number of vacant city positions was not available Thursday.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Joyanne loves to tell the stories of this city, especially when politics is involved. Joyanne became the city hall reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press in early 2020.