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Hydro temporarily laying off up to 700 workers; union leaders lash out at premier

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After saying last year further staff cuts would jeopardize worker safety and customer service, Manitoba Hydro announced Monday it will issue four-month layoff notices to up to 700 employees, starting as early as the end of this week.

The utility had "no other choice" in order to find the savings the Manitoba government asked for in mid-April to support its pandemic response, Hydro president and CEO Jay Grewal said in an email to employees.

How layoffs may impact Manitobans

Job cuts at Manitoba Hydro won't happen overnight because of layoff notice provisions in collective agreements.

In two labour contracts, 90 days notice is required, which could delay layoffs until August. With the layoffs lasting four months, workers could be out until December.

Members of four unions are affected by the cuts and have yet to be given specifics on the impact to their members.

Job cuts at Manitoba Hydro won't happen overnight because of layoff notice provisions in collective agreements.

In two labour contracts, 90 days notice is required, which could delay layoffs until August. With the layoffs lasting four months, workers could be out until December.

Members of four unions are affected by the cuts and have yet to be given specifics on the impact to their members.

International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2034

Number of members at Hydro: 2,283 (compared with 2,343 at the end of 1994)

What the workers do: They get the lights back on when the power goes out. They work in power generation, transmission and distribution.

Required notice period for layoffs: 90 days

Potential impact: Longer waits for power to be restored. Less capacity to deal with a major outage crisis, such as last October's ice storm.

Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 998

Number of members at Hydro: 900

What the workers do: Clerical and administration, including bill payment and accounting. They take the call when you phone in a power outage.

Required notice period for layoffs: 90 days

Potential impact: Slower responses to customer inquiries and requests for help

Association of Manitoba Hydro Staff and Supervisory Employees

Number of members at Hydro: 774

What the workers do: They work in middle management, technical support and project management. They are safety officers, technical experts. They supervise such field operations as construction and response to power outages.

Required notice period for layoffs: 60 days

Potential impact: The association says a reduction of its members will lead to longer waits for new service connections and other permit-required activities, longer customer power outages and restoration times during major events such as summer storms, and less oversight for the safety and well-being of field crews.

Unifor Local 681

Number of members at Hydro: 228 work in the gas unit and 100 are meter readers with the Manitoba Hydro Utility Service

What the workers do: They repair and maintain natural gas lines and read meters.

Required notice period for layoffs: A minimum of 48 hours, but the employer must first divest itself of any contract workers.

Potential impact: Cuts could affect safe, reliable natural gas service throughout the province, the union says.

Larry Kusch

The temporary layoffs will be implemented following the provisions of existing collective bargaining agreements, Grewal said in her update to employees about the effort to find $86 million in cost reductions and labour savings.

"Since mid-April, we’ve gone through every part of this organization looking for opportunities to reduce or eliminate discretionary and non-essential spending," she wrote.

The utility has been able to find more than $63 million of the needed cost reductions and another $12 million by not filling vacant or seasonal positions. That left the Hydro about $11 million, or 13 per cent, short of what the province required, she said. 

Hydro worked with unions to find ways to meet the target but couldn't reach "common ground" on how to do that, she said.

The Crown corporation's executive leadership team will be working with directors and managers to identify employees critical to short-term business needs and service delivery to decide on the layoffs, she said.

"This is a direction I sincerely hoped to avoid," Grewal's message to employees said.

As many as 700 Manitoba Hydro employees are being laid off to save the utility money. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

As many as 700 Manitoba Hydro employees are being laid off to save the utility money. (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Last September, she sent a message reassuring them that Hydro had already achieved the staffing-reduction targets set out earlier by the provincial government, and layoffs weren't imminent.

A year ago, when the province asked Hydro and other Crown corporations to cut management staff by 15 per cent and their overall workforce by eight per cent, company spokesman Bruce Owen said any further staff cuts would be risky. 

"We believe that further staff reductions would significantly increase the risk of public and employee safety, of system reliability... as well as our ability to provide reasonable levels of service to our customers," Owen told the Free Press last May. In the preceding two years, Hydro had cut staff by 872 positions, or 14 per cent.

When asked about more layoffs Monday, Owen said that all aspects of the electricity and natural gas system will "continue to operate as before" and public and employee safety will not be compromised due to reduced staff levels.

"However, it’s expected there will be some impact on service levels during the layoff period," he said in a statement. "It’s difficult to speculate, but it could include longer wait times for service requests such as line locates and service extensions, reduced customer communications and, potentially, more frequent outages of longer duration due to reduced staff."

"Pallister’s cuts are not to support the fight against COVID–19, they are purely political. This will be devastating." – Michelle Bergen

Unions representing staff lashed out after learning of the layoff notices.

With Hydro operating at full capacity during the pandemic, the layoffs are "reckless" and Premier Brian Pallister is to blame, said the president of Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 998.

"Pallister has had his eyes on our public Hydro since he was elected in 2016," said Michelle Bergen. "Pallister’s cuts are not to support the fight against COVID-19, they are purely political. This will be devastating."

The affected unions said in a joint release that Hydro found temporary savings in other areas and would have been able to deliver nearly all the demanded savings over four months, but Pallister insisted on job cuts.

Cuts will put Hydro in a "dangerous position," said Mike Espenell, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 business manager.

"We are working full-tilt and using safe practices during the pandemic. We are doing our part, coming to work every day. This pandemic could be a lot worse to handle if Manitobans in care, at home, at work and in industry have to wait longer for service because of Pallister’s reckless cuts."

In an email to employees, Crown corporation president and CEO Jay Grewal said the utility had no other choice in order to find the savings the Manitoba government requested. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In an email to employees, Crown corporation president and CEO Jay Grewal said the utility had no other choice in order to find the savings the Manitoba government requested. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The unions argue there's no room left for more job cuts after downsizing and a two-year wage freeze.

"We have already been cut to the bone — Hydro’s annual payroll cost has been going down for four years," said Victor Diduch, acting president of Unifor Local 681. "It makes no sense to hammer workers — all that does is compromise our public hydro and gas service, and take money away from families who are trying to get through this crisis," said Diduch.

Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton was not made available for an interview but spokeswoman Caitlin MacGregor said fighting COVID-19 and protecting "our most valuable service — our health-care system" is the government's No. 1 priority — not cutting jobs or privatizing Hydro.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew accused the province of using the pandemic to justify layoffs, and "setting the stage" for privatizing the utility.

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont accused the Pallister government of plundering Hydro’s revenues to make up for its mismanagement of government finances, "just as the NDP did." 

 

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Reporter

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.

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History

Updated on Monday, May 11, 2020 at 1:33 PM CDT: fixes typo

7:35 PM: Updates story.

7:46 PM: Fixes typo.

9:19 PM: Fixes typo

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