After five years of cutting the provincial civil service, Manitobans may now be paying the price, critics say.
There has been a reduction of 2,644 positions since the Progressive Conservatives formed government in 2016, with Premier Brian Pallister vowing to balance the budget and reduce the ranks of Manitoba's civil service.
The number of such employees had fallen to 12,232 by the end of March, from 14,876 positions in March 2016 — a cut of nearly 18 per cent.
Updated provincial employee numbers aren't publicly available until the Civil Service Commission tables its annual report in September, but the latest figures were obtained by the Opposition NDP through a freedom of information request.
It listed the number of civil service employees for the last six years. It does not provide a breakdown of the employee reductions in each government department.
"Brian Pallister said, at one point, it's a bunch of little cuts that nobody would notice," NDP MLA and labour critic Tom Lindsey said in an interview Tuesday.
"People have noticed. When they've tried to get service, people are noticing those folks aren't there anymore. There's no one answering the phone."
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March 2020, the premier called for even more austerity, Lindsey said.
"Brian Pallister said there were layoffs in the private sector so, therefore, there needed to be layoffs in the public sector," the MLA for Flin Flon said.
"It's kind of become an excuse for the government to reduce services."
The pandemic laid bare health-care consolidation cuts, including a shortage of critical care nurses in Manitoba, as ICU patients were sent out of province. The Free Press has reported government contracting out some provincial park operations.
A litany of smaller cuts are also getting the public's attention, Lindsey said.
"Manitobans do see the effects on the civil service that are affecting them every day," he said.
"We see things like Vital Statistics, where people are trying to get birth records and all those kind of certificates that are a vital part of carrying on daily life," said Lindsey. "They're waiting an exorbitant amount of time because there isn't the people there to do the work now."
Manitoba's post-pandemic recovery will take longer as a result of civil service cuts, Lindsey predicted.
"Things like building permits and other permits that people need to get back into business are going to be slower to get. There are going to be issues where the government should be hiring people to start jump-starting the economy."
Instead of filling such jobs with Manitoba residents paying taxes, Lindsey said he's seeing the province hire private-sector businesses — including out-of province contractors. "How's that going to help Manitoba recover from the pandemic? It's not."
The province referred requests for comment to the Civil Service Commission. The minister responsible, Reg Helwer, was not available for comment late Tuesday.
In March, the rate of civil service shrinkage had slowed to 139 fewer provincial employees than that month the year before.
"They're running out of places to cut," Lindsey said.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union has lost members in conservation, child and family services, and highways.
Union president Michelle Gawronsky said she's noticed a pattern, with positions deleted as soon as people retire or transfer to another department.
As a result, services decline, people complain and government responds — not by hiring civil servants but by contracting out the service to a private business, Gawronsky said Tuesday.
More contractors with Alberta and Ontario licence plates can be seen doing highway maintenance work, she said.
"That's tax dollars going to other provinces," said Gawronsky.
"It is time the government starts to value and respect our public services and the fact that Manitobans rely on them."
After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.