The provincial government has axed nine air ambulance pilots and maintenance workers.
On Wednesday, the Lifeflight employees — six in Winnipeg and three in Thompson — were told it was their last day.
"Today is an incredibly hard day for those working at the Manitoba Lifeflight program," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents Lifeflight nurses, clerical staff, pilots and maintenance crew.
The union leader blasted the provincial government for the short notice and lack of information.
"You can't get any more disrespectful than that," she said at a news conference. "In this government's rush to privatize this service, they have failed to put together a contingency plan to ensure that critical air ambulance service is there for Manitobans," said Gawronsky.
The province said it's got a plan; the flights are being privatized, but not the service.
"Ongoing flight operations for Lifeflight have been secured through an interim critical care competitively tendered contract with flight operations transferring to another provider effective June 28," a government spokesman said Wednesday.
On June 6, the province announced it would ground its two Cessna Citation aircraft — which handled about 50 per cent of the medical transportation calls — and replace them with private carriers. The remainder of flights already use private carriers.
"It’s important to note the Lifeflight medical program continues to be offered by government," the spokesman said in a prepared statement Wednesday.
"While some aircraft are changing and employees in Manitoba’s air services branch have been impacted by this change, the delivery of patient care and clinical services continues," he said.
"The delivery of patient care continues with efforts to triage calls, assign aviation services throughout private carriers and match available clinical staff to patient need," the spokesman said. Flights will be provided with the support of "appropriately configured private air service carriers."
As for the laid-off Lifeflight employees, there may be job opportunities with the new service provider, he said. "Every effort will be made to find other positions within the civil service for employees that are affected by operational changes."
Gawronsky said 13 MGEU members are still employed by Lifeflight and the union is waiting to find out what will happen to them.
"We have major concerns with what the future holds for critical air ambulance services in Manitoba and whether Manitobans will have confidence the service will be safe and reliable," said Gawronsky.
A government-run service is more accountable than a for-profit service, she said.
"We can ensure that our tax dollars are being put to the best use when we know the service is provided by the government that we elect... that there's accountability, that safety standards are always met and the best training and the best qualified are always there for them."
Dr. Renate Singh, the medical director of Lifeflight, said the program's doctors — who have been opposed to privatization of the service from the start — were not formally advised of Wednesday's layoffs, and their future with the program "remains uncertain."
Changes to the air ambulance system, which covers areas outside a 200-kilometre radius around Winnipeg, won't affect safety, the spokesman for the province said.
"The province is committed to ensuring the safety of patients and staff members, and the continuity of safe, consistent and high-quality care for Manitobans."
NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the government of gutting services and moving to privatize "and they’re using the election period for cover."
"Manitobans are losing jobs, they’re losing health care, losing air ambulances. Yet the government is not being open and transparent about what’s going on here," he said. "It’s happening during this blackout period that we’re in. The government isn’t answering questions about the impact it’s going to have on the people who are losing their jobs or what’s going to happen to the health care service that Lifeflight provides."
— with files from Larry Kusch
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.