August 15, 2020

Winnipeg
25° C, A few clouds

Full Forecast

Close this
Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Subscribe

Manitoba public service unions facing ultimatum: layoffs or work reductions

The Free Press has made this story available free of charge so everyone can access trusted information on the coronavirus.

Support this work by subscribing today

Premier Brian Pallister is telling Manitoba's public service unions that the only way they can avoid layoffs amid the coronavirus pandemic is to accept reduced workweeks for non-essential employees.

Pallister raised the issue of a reduced work schedule Tuesday morning when he announced the province will cover the salaries of front-line health-care workers who miss work for 14 days to self-isolate if they have been exposed to COVID-19.

The reduced workweek is an "all hands on deck approach to fighting COVID-19," the premier said at a news conference.

The news was a jolt for unions that have been at loggerheads with the Pallister government for most of the four years its been in power.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky.

"We were told that the only way to avoid significant layoffs would be to voluntarily enter into work-sharing agreements where non-essential staff would have their workweek reduced to as little as two days per week," said Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union.

Provincial officials were unable to say which public services they consider non-essential, Gawronsky said.

Affected workers would get Employment Insurance for the lost work days, she said. For those who earn less than $54,000 annually, that would mean keeping about 70 per cent of their pay and avoiding a layoff. But it would only be possible if the federal government agreed to make the province eligible for the EI program, she said.

The premier told reporters the plan is required in order to shift resources to where they're needed most right now — the health-care system and fighting COVID-19.

"We were told that the only way to avoid significant layoffs would be to voluntarily enter into work-sharing agreements where non-essential staff would have their workweek reduced to as little as two days per week." — Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees Union

Pallister said the work reduction would be a temporary measure to get through an economic crisis brought on by the pandemic that has resulted in shrinking provincial tax revenue, soaring health-care costs and a projected $5-billion provincial deficit this year.

"It’s far preferable in our minds to layoffs and a way in which we can help keep people at work part of the time," Pallister said.

The move left unions scrambling for answers to how it will all play out.

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck: "Pretty surprised to hear about that today,"

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck: "Pretty surprised to hear about that today,"

"I was pretty surprised to hear about that today," Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck said, adding more questions remained after a conference call with the premier.

Pallister has said several times in recent days that private-sector workers have been hit harder by restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, but that doesn't mean slashing the public sector will make things better, Rebeck said. The goal should be to keep people employed as much as possible.

"We're facing an unprecedented health crisis," Rebeck said.

"Right now, more Manitobans than ever are counting on public services to be there. More people are calling on EIA (Employment and Income Assistance), Rent Assist and Child and Family Services than ever before."

"It will take money out of the pockets of families at a time when they need it most and it will put more pressure on an already strained economy." — NDP Leader Wab Kinew

NDP Opposition leader Wab Kinew said Pallister's plan will make things worse for Manitobans who are already struggling to pay their bills.

"It will take money out of the pockets of families at a time when they need it most and it will put more pressure on an already strained economy," Kinew said in an email.

The premier said he's spoken to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland about the EI proposal, adding it wouldn't require a change in federal legislation. It would make use of the employment insurance program that government has paid into the last 10 years, with more than $2 billion in employer and employee contributions, he said.

Premier Brian Pallister: "All hands on deck approach to fighting COVID-19."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Premier Brian Pallister: "All hands on deck approach to fighting COVID-19."

He urged union leaders to join him in lobbying the federal government to allow "this common-sense sharing program" to be used in the public sector, much like it's already in use throughout the private sector. He said a Manitoba government employee getting paid two days a week by the province and three days a week by EI for four months wouldn't be a bad deal for a civil servant "in the middle of a Manitoba summer with their kids at home."

Manitoba a standout on part-time EI

OTTAWA — The Pallister government may be the only jurisdiction to consider putting its public servants onto part-time employment insurance.

In a Tuesday afternoon survey of the nine other provinces, the governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador said they were not exploring such a move. Other provinces did not respond by deadline. Many of the provinces said they were reallocating staff, and some had undergone hiring freezes.

OTTAWA — The Pallister government may be the only jurisdiction to consider putting its public servants onto part-time employment insurance.

In a Tuesday afternoon survey of the nine other provinces, the governments of Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador said they were not exploring such a move. Other provinces did not respond by deadline. Many of the provinces said they were reallocating staff, and some had undergone hiring freezes.

Municipalities across Canada have laid off workers, or kept them as unpaid staff, though it appear no large cities have had their staff undertake part-time EI.

Under the federal EI Work Sharing program, employers can implement “a voluntary reduction in hours (…) to retain a full work force on a reduced work week, rather than laying off part of his or her work force,” according to a Service Canada website.

It’s unclear if that’s the program Pallister intends to use, and if provincial governments would qualify for it.

—Dylan Robertson

Pallister told reporters the 14-day paid leave will apply to all front-line workers — "people who make the beds and clean the floors and washrooms and do the front-line work of protecting people when they’re in our facilities."

He did not specify if the paid leave includes nursing home and home care workers, said Shannon McAteer, CUPE health care co-ordinator for Manitoba. "We're happy they're implementing this, but what does it mean?"

Meanwhile, social service providers that receive provincial grants are especially nervous right now, said Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.

The union represents workers at several of them, including the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities, the Rehabilitation Centre for Children and the Aboriginal Health and Wellness Centre.

"A lot of these places are very much on edge," Moroz said. "We need to make sure these services aren’t on the chopping block."

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.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 at 8:14 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

8:41 PM: fixes typo

10:02 PM: Updates related items

The Winnipeg Free Press invites you to share your opinion on this story in a letter to the editor. A selection of letters to the editor are published daily.

To submit a letter:
• fill out the form on this page, or
• email letters@freepress.mb.ca, or
• mail Letters to the Editor, 1355 Mountain Avenue, Winnipeg, Manitoba, R2X 3B6.

Letters must include the writer’s full name, address, and a daytime phone number. Letters are edited for length and clarity.