May 24, 2019

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Meth crisis, service consolidation fuelling rise in violence at welfare office: union

The glint of a gun brandished under the lights of the office, used needles discarded in the workplace bathroom, death threats and abuse hurled at staff, violent assaults, stalking and intimidation.

Those are the workplace hazards staff at the provincial employment and income assistance (EIA) office on the 100 block of Rorie Street has been subjected to during the past 15 months, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

The spike in violence is the result of the consolidation of social assistance services in Winnipeg and a meth crisis ravaging the city’s streets and spilling in through the EIA office doors, Manitoba Government and General Employees Union president Michelle Gawronsky said.

The provincial government, however, denies these claims, saying violent incidents at the location are rare and abusive behaviour not tolerated.

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The glint of a gun brandished under the lights of the office, used needles discarded in the workplace bathroom, death threats and abuse hurled at staff, violent assaults, stalking and intimidation.

Those are the workplace hazards staff at the provincial employment and income assistance (EIA) office on the 100 block of Rorie Street has been subjected to during the past 15 months, according to sources with knowledge of the situation.

Michelle Gawronsky, president of Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU).
171030 - Monday, October 30, 2017.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Michelle Gawronsky, president of Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union (MGEU). 171030 - Monday, October 30, 2017.

The spike in violence is the result of the consolidation of social assistance services in Winnipeg and a meth crisis ravaging the city’s streets and spilling in through the EIA office doors, Manitoba Government and General Employees Union president Michelle Gawronsky said.

The provincial government, however, denies these claims, saying violent incidents at the location are rare and abusive behaviour not tolerated.

The working conditions at the Rorie Street welfare office have been brought to light in the wake of an attack on a security guard Monday afternoon, which left him in critical condition in hospital and the suspect in custody awaiting a court date for aggravated assault.

Police were dispatched to the scene at 3:20 p.m. after receiving reports the 50-year-old security guard had been stabbed. Upon arrival, officers located and arrested the suspect.

Investigators determined the suspect entered the welfare office, jumped the counter and crossed a protective glass barrier that separates staff from the public. When asked to leave, the suspect pulled out a knife and stabbed the security guard.

Louis-Nicolas Lamoureux-Gagne, 47 of Winnipeg, faces charges of aggravated assault and possession of a weapon. He’s been detained at the Winnipeg Remand Centre. The security guard's condition has since been upgraded to stable.

In a written statement, a provincial spokeswoman said temporary changes to safety protocols have been implemented at the office since the stabbing. She also issued a strong denial the location has seen a spike in violence.

"The safety of our staff and clients is our priority, so we have increased security procedures at this building in the interim while we continue to assess and review our security procedures and infrastructure," the spokeswoman said.

"The information provided to you about the number and severity of incidents at this EIA office is inaccurate. Serious incidents are rare and there hasn’t been one in more than a year. The office policy is zero tolerance of abusive or aggressive behaviour."

However, that’s contradicted by sources with knowledge of frontline working conditions who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity, and by Gawronsky, president of the union representing security guards at the office.

"I won’t call the government a liar. If they’re not aware of what’s going on in their own workplaces with their employees, then shame on them and they need to step up and find out what’s going on," Gawronsky said.

"They’re very much aware the meth crisis is causing more violence in workplaces all over the place. For them to say that’s simply not true, I’m floored."

Sources told the Free Press that since the closure of the former EIA office at 896 Main Street near the end of 2017, the situation at the Rorie Street location has deteriorated into violence and mayhem. Within two months of the closure, five serious incidents occurred, sources said, including a member of the public jumping the counter and attempting to strangle a staff member.

They also said people have shown up at the office with weapons, including an instance when a gun was brought in. In addition, they reported routine fights in the waiting room, attempts at intimidation, property destruction and cases of clients stalking staff members.

Many of the perpetrators in these incidents show signs of underlying mental health and addictions issues, particularly methamphetamine use, Gawronsky said.

The issues at the Rorie Street location are part and parcel of the fear of violence frontline workers throughout the city at hospitals, Liquor Marts and Manitoba Housing are increasingly subjected to, Gawronsky said.

"Unlike the government, we talk to frontline workers. I’ve talked to the ones who provide security services at EIA. They are telling me incidents of violence have increased, no questions asked," she said.

"I challenge the government to come sit down with me and these workers, which is something we’ve been offering for some time. We’re more than willing to work with them in any way we can. There's no reason for anyone to be facing life and death situations when they go into work. It's just not acceptable."

A provincial spokeswoman said in a written statement that the EIA office on Main Street was closed due to reduced volume and the closure hasn't resulted in a corresponding uptick of violent incidents at the Rorie Street location.

ryan.thorpe@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @rk_thorpe

Ryan Thorpe

Ryan Thorpe
Reporter

Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.

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Updated on Thursday, January 17, 2019 at 9:16 AM CST: Minor edits

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