May 26, 2020

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Finally, a sensible plan to cut civil-service spending

Opinion

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After weeks of hyperbolic threats and doomsday scenarios about spending cuts and job losses, we finally get a moment of sanity.

The Progressive Conservative government has circulated a memo asking that 6,200 core government civil servants take five unpaid days off this summer to help avoid more extensive layoffs. If the uptake is significant, it is estimated that the five-day furlough will save about $9.5 million.

Many other details are still unknown, including the extent of the request and whether some groups of employees – like political staff – who have already taken pay cuts will be asked to participate.

Notwithstanding the lack of details, a five-day furlough is a modest but sensible idea. It spreads the pain out over a large population of civil servants so that no one group has to suffer complete job loss. It all makes so much sense that it makes you wonder why Premier Brian Pallister didn't do this weeks, if not months, earlier.

The furlough announcement came five weeks to the day that Pallister first raised the prospect of layoffs and then met with public-sector union leaders to discuss possible alternatives.

A five–day furlough is a modest but sensible idea. It spreads the pain out over a large population of civil servants so that no one group has to suffer complete job loss. It all makes so much sense that it makes you wonder why Premier Brian Pallister didn't do this weeks, if not months, earlier.

Since then, however, the premier has served Manitobans a dog's breakfast of strategies for reducing staff costs to meet the fiscal and economic pressures caused the pandemic. The steady diet of deception and confusion coming out of the premier's office has left those inside and outside government scratching their collective heads.

First, Pallister proposed that civil servants volunteer for the federal Employment Insurance job-sharing program, where they could work two days a week and draw EI for three days. However, those people who work directly for core government were not eligible for EI job-sharing. A lobbying effort was underway but it was unclear whether it would have any effect.

Then, about a week later, we got the now-infamous demand for provincial departments, universities, colleges and other government reporting entities including crown corporations to cut spending by 30 per cent, a demand that almost certainly would have led to widespread layoffs. That threat only lingered for about a week until Finance Minister Scott Fielding revealed that spending across government would only be reduced by 3.8 per cent, with two thirds of that coming from reduced staffing costs.

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba premier Brian Pallister.

Manitoba Hydro crunched the numbers in Fielding's edict and came up with a target of 700 layoffs, which immediately led to widespread concern about the safety of the power grid. After several days of defending the job losses and dismissing their impact, Pallister actually asked Hydro and its unions to find alternatives that would avoid layoffs.

Meanwhile, crown attorneys and legal aid lawyers, who remain fully employed during the pandemic, were nonetheless asked to consider up to five weeks of unpaid leave between now and September. It was an ask that would have essentially shut down the justice system.

Taken together, these muddled measures are the evidence of weak and unfocused leadership. At a time when all Manitobans including those who work for the province need clarity and decisive action, we have a mish-mash of cost-reduction measures that is absent of any discernible logic.

Like all provinces, Manitoba is facing a fiscal crisis caused largely by a combination of higher health-care costs and the precipitous drop in revenues that has come with the economic lockdown. Pallister has exaggerated the size of the fiscal threat, but there is no doubt that it is real.

Manitoba is facing a fiscal crisis caused largely by a combination of higher health–care costs and the precipitous drop in revenues that has come with the economic lockdown. Pallister has exaggerated the size of the fiscal threat, but there is no doubt that it is real.

Faced with that harsh reality, it was incumbent on the premier to identify a sensible strategy early on in this pandemic to ensure the pain that comes with cutting expenditures would be spread evenly and fairly across the largest possible swath of the public service. Instead, he fired off a series of disconnected and often conflicting proposals like some sort of uncovered blender.

That image, and the accompanying criticism that has been levelled at the premier, could have been avoided if a furlough program was enacted months ago. A furlough similar to the "Filmon Fridays" that former Premier Gary Filmon employed in the mid 1990s would likely have been accepted by public sector unions and their members with little consternation. And it would not have prevented the premier from cutting more deeply should the situation worsen.

Instead, we appear to have a case of the premier being a bit too greedy for his own good. Instead of modest achievable measures, he tried to unleash big, deep cuts to staffing costs at the outset in a futile effort to hit an austerity homerun. The mess Pallister has made of his relationship with the civil service is proof enough that big swings result in even bigger misses.

The worst part of this disordered approach to managing staffing costs is the mental and emotional toll it has taken on the people who work for this government. Civil servants are citizens and, more importantly, consumers. When they are fearful for their jobs, they start losing sleep and stop spending money. And when that happens, the few businesses that have been able to stay open through the pandemic struggle even more to survive.

If that's not bad enough, threatening civil servants with layoffs for five weeks seems a tad cruel.

A furlough is a solid and reasonable idea. It doesn't undo the damage done by a premier who is flailing around looking for a way out of the fiscal mess he has inherited. But it is a way forward to a more sensible future.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

Read full biography

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