August 13, 2020

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Premier urges creative ways to avoid Hydro layoffs

Premier Brian Pallister wants Manitoba Hydro employees to work out a job-sharing agreement. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Premier Brian Pallister wants Manitoba Hydro employees to work out a job-sharing agreement. (Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press files)

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Premier Brian Pallister is urging Manitoba Hydro and its unions to avoid 700 layoffs by agreeing to an Employment Insurance work-share plan, even though it's neither practical nor feasible, a confidential memo shows.

The internal Manitoba Hydro memo says that Service Canada, which administers the job-sharing program, requires that all employees and unions agree to it before submitting an application. The Crown utility has 5,475 full-time employees and multiple unions.

"Manitoba Hydro does not expect all employees to voluntarily agree to reduce their hours of work and pay," the memo says. Moreover, if Service Canada approved Manitoba Hydro's application, the level of weekly reporting that the federal department requires would be "very resource intensive." Administering the program is "administratively complex and burdensome," and could end up costing Hydro more money.

Yet, at a Thursday morning teleconference, the premier was rooting for Hydro and its employees to work out a job-sharing agreement. He has promoted the idea since he began ordering wage-cost reductions in the public sector in response to the pandemic.

"We have never demanded layoffs," Pallister said. Work-share arrangements are happening in other public sector workplaces and Crown corporations and he urged the unions and the utility to "get back to the table and avoid layoffs."

"It's what we prefer and what I've urged Hydro to do and what I would urge unions to do," Pallister said. "I would encourage them to avail themselves of the opportunity."

On Thursday morning, Manitoba Hydro president and CEO Jay Grewal sent a message to employees saying the 700 temporary layoffs she announced on Monday "have never been our desired outcome." She said they remain open to exploring all options to meet the $11-million workforce expense reduction imposed by the government as part of its pandemic response. Grewal said her preferred option would be an eight per cent temporary pay cut for everyone at Hydro, including herself, and that it would require unions to agree to it.

One of Hydro's major unions says it has asked Hydro for details about the proposals and where layoffs would occur but have been told that information is "cabinet privilege," said Mike Espenell, business manager for Local 2034 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents 2,283 Hydro workers.

Manitoba Hydro president and CEO Jay Grewal says she would rather see all employees agree to an eight per cent wage cut to avoid layoffs. (Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun files)

Manitoba Hydro president and CEO Jay Grewal says she would rather see all employees agree to an eight per cent wage cut to avoid layoffs. (Colin Corneau / Brandon Sun files)

"We don't know if we're negotiating with the government or Hydro right now. Everybody's hands are tied here. It's very difficult," said Espenell, adding he thinks the premier is muzzling Hydro's executive, which has openly balked at layoffs after it already cut 14 per cent of its staff — 872 positions — in recent years.

"We believe the corporation has been told they can't share anything with us. I think we've got a good relationship with the corporation, but at this point, we're not really dealing with the corporation," he said.

Opposition Leader Wab Kinew has written to Grewal asking for a meeting to find out what effect the $11 million in cuts directed by Pallister will have on employees, Hydro rates and the future of the publicly owned utility.

"The premier has so far refused to allow the house to resume sitting more regularly for the foreseeable future and will not call budgetary committees to examine government’s directives and cuts to Hydro," Kinew's letter said.

"I would like to make the case that these job cuts are not necessary," he said in an interview. "I think it's all Pallister, in terms of where this is coming from."

Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont expressed similar concern.

"Neither Hydro nor the PCs have provided a shred of evidence to explain why any of these cuts are necessary or justified. The only reason Hydro is providing is that they have been ordered to do so by Brian Pallister, which the premier has publicly denied. These cuts are not necessary and they are happening because Pallister is ordering them, while denying it. That is a bad line to cross," Lamont said.

Manitoba Hydro declined to comment Thursday, issuing a statement instead.

"Manitoba Hydro continues to discuss several approaches to meet the savings targets with our bargaining units to minimize the impact on our employees and the service we provide our customers," the statement said. "We had been working with bargaining units to explore options which would allow for some flexibility in meeting this objective. Unfortunately, we could not find common ground on a means to achieve that, but we are continuing our conversations."

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders

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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