While the City of Winnipeg and the Pallister government bicker, the livelihoods of as many as 600 workers hang in the balance.

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This article was published 26/11/2020 (377 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

While the City of Winnipeg and the Pallister government bicker, the livelihoods of as many as 600 workers hang in the balance.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman had suggested the province redeploy up to 600 city staff, who will be laid off as of Sunday, to the province's pandemic response team.

On Thursday, Municipal Affairs Minister Rochelle Squires claimed she wasn't aware of the mayor's "request" until she read about it in the media.

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman has suggested the province redeploy up to 600 city staff that may be laid off as soon as this weekend.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman has suggested the province redeploy up to 600 city staff that may be laid off as soon as this weekend.

Bowman said it was an "offer" rather than a "request" when asked by reporters Thursday about the minister’s remarks. He said the provincial government "clearly needs support." The province has struggled to keep up with contact tracing and has the highest COVID-19 test-positivity rate in Canada.

The city workers are getting pink slips because code-red pandemic orders have forced the closure of city pools, arenas and programming.

During question period Thursday, the Pallister government was asked if it would put the city employees to work as Bowman had suggested.

"I had learned about this when I read the newspaper," Squires later told reporters.

Bowman said in the middle of the pandemic, relations between the two governments are "troubling."

"I had learned about this when I read the newspaper." — Municipal Affairs Minister Rochelle Squires

"It's concerning," Bowman told reporters late Thursday. Squires should have known because city and provincial officials have been having "quite extensive dialogue for many, many weeks" about the province hiring civic workers who've been laid off, he said.

"I am surprised to hear the minister isn't in the loop with her own officials," Bowman said.

"It demonstrates that this minister hasn't had the dialogue you would expect with her own government officials. That is concerning in the middle of the pandemic," said Bowman, who hasn't had a face-to-face meeting with Premier Brian Pallister since April.

Manitoba Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Municipal Relations Minister Rochelle Squires.

The municipal affairs minister told reporters there have been "some conversations" at the official level but the city hasn't come right out and asked the province to hire the civic workers.

"The mayor cannot drop an idea at a press conference one day, then expect an answer from the province the next day," Squires said.

"Redeploying staff between levels of government is very complex," she said. The province is trying to prevent layoffs, she asserted.

"Our government is very committed to ensuring that people have jobs throughout this season. That is why we've worked very diligently to redeploy provincial staff wherever possible to avoid layoffs."

"It demonstrates that this minister hasn't had the dialogue you would expect with her own government officials. That is concerning in the middle of the pandemic." — Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman

Meantime, the province has shuffled staff in departments — most notably in Manitoba Justice — to help with the pandemic response.

The justice department has asked junior Crown attorneys, support staff and articling students to do what one Law Courts clerk described to the Free Press as "call centre-type work."

A spokeswoman for Manitoba Justice said Thursday it's part of a government-wide COVID-19 response.

"Provincial departments were asked if they had employees that could be redeployed to assist with the response to the COVID-19 pandemic," she said in an email. "As departments assess their work priorities and are able to have staff redeployed, they are added to the team working on the response, and filling suitable roles," said the unnamed spokeswoman.

"The areas to which staff are being redeployed vary, and redeployments are still in progress. Training is being provided to staff to conduct new work assignments as required," she said.

Mayor Brian Bowman and Premier Brian Pallister speak to the media at the Manitoba Legislative Building on April 9. The two haven't had a face-to-face meeting since April says the mayor.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Mayor Brian Bowman and Premier Brian Pallister speak to the media at the Manitoba Legislative Building on April 9. The two haven't had a face-to-face meeting since April says the mayor.

The Law Courts employee who contacted the Free Press is concerned about how the redeployments would affect the justice system and court sittings. So is Manitoba Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont, who has advocated for people navigating the justice system and facing delays such as postponed trials.

"The fact the government is pulling people out of the justice system in order to do contact tracing can't even be explained," Lamont told reporters. "We're pulling people from one essential service to another."

StatCan, province opaque on agency callers

The confusion over who is doing contact-tracing in Manitoba extends to the support offered by Statistics Canada, with both the province and the federal agency refusing to specify how many staff is working, and at what cost.

In mid-October, a cohort of 80 StatCan staff started to help Manitoba with contact notification. They phone people who are listed as possible exposures.

The confusion over who is doing contact-tracing in Manitoba extends to the support offered by Statistics Canada, with both the province and the federal agency refusing to specify how many staff is working, and at what cost.

In mid-October, a cohort of 80 StatCan staff started to help Manitoba with contact notification. They phone people who are listed as possible exposures.

On Thursday, the Health Department said it intends to have 200 of the agency’s staff trained to assist the province by the end of the day, but did not say if Manitoba had reached that goal, or how many were indeed working in those jobs.

“The costs related to COVID response, including contact tracing, are part of the Health, Seniors and Active Living budget,” an agency spokeswoman wrote, refusing to disclose the cost.

Statistics Canada was even more tight-lipped. It refused to say who was paying for the employees, what roles they had before Manitoba’s request and which province they’re based in.

Instead, a spokeswoman noted her agency publishes a national number on how many contact-tracing calls it made each day “for openness and transparency.”

— Dylan Robertson

The province said the measures won't prevent anyone from getting their day in court. Courts are operating on a reduced schedule until Dec. 11. "As courts reopen, sheriffs officers or any other courts staff that may be redeployed will return to their regular duties to support the work of the court," the Manitoba Justice spokeswoman said.

Squires said the province is willing to look at how city employees could be redeployed by the province as well, but wasn't aware of any deadline or that Nov. 29 is their layoff date.

"We've instructed the civil service commission to take a look and if there's an opportunity we certainly would like to accommodate," she said. "I would certainly invite a phone call from the mayor to clarify the requirement and when those requirements would need to be addressed."

NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the province of making excuses and not wanting to spend money.

"All that's really needed is a green light at the political level," Kinew said.

"All we need is the minister or the premier saying 'we'll keep people working up to the holiday season,'" Kinew said. Instead of spending when it's needed, the Pallister government takes a "cut, cut, cut" approach, he said.

"Six-hundred livelihoods are on the line heading into the holiday season," Kinew said. "Let's keep people working. Not only will it help with the economic impact, these people can go to work to help our pandemic response... It seems like an easy thing to say 'yes' to."

— with files from Joyanne Pursaga

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.