September 30, 2020

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Time to 'get back to work': Pallister

Premier Brian Pallister announced the Manitoba Job Restart program on Tuesday. The program will pay people $2,000 over six weeks to get back to work and stop collecting the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Premier Brian Pallister announced the Manitoba Job Restart program on Tuesday. The program will pay people $2,000 over six weeks to get back to work and stop collecting the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

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Premier Brian Pallister's plan to pay Manitobans to stop collecting federal emergency benefits and return to work is drawing polite applause from some, and raised eyebrows and criticism from others.

"We'd like you to get back to work," Pallister said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

"On our calls with premiers and the prime minister, it's become increasingly evident the CERB program has some disincentives... that are preventing some Canadians from returning to work on a full-time basis."

The province says it will pay individuals $2,000 to return to the workforce and stop collecting the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit and Canada Emergency Student Benefit.

The federal programs have helped some eight million Canadians through financial challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they're not helping Manitoba meet its demand for workers as it reopens more of its economy ahead of other provinces, Pallister said.

"It's time to kick the CERB to the curb," the premier said.

It is a stance that appeared to be cautiously embraced by the business sector.

"We need to make sure that businesses don't face barriers to rehiring," said Jonathan Alward with the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

In late May, the federation surveyed its members about staffing issues, and the majority said the federal programs were the main reason they were having difficulty filling positions.

"A little over half said getting employees back and off CERB or CESB had been a challenge for them," Alward said Tuesday. Child-care issues, transit challenges and concerns about bringing the virus home to a loved one were also cited, but "the No. 1 barrier was getting people off of those two benefit programs."

The Manitoba Job Restart program announced Tuesday will provide direct payments to a maximum of $2,000 to help qualified Manitobans return to work.

The taxable benefit will provide one initial payment of $500, and three additional bi-weekly payments for $500 each, over six weeks. Program participants must voluntarily stop collecting CERB or CESB support from the federal government.

The program could help bring "tens of thousands" of Manitobans back to work, said Pallister, who couldn't say how many are expected to accept the offer.

However, economist Lynne Fernandez doubts the program will get the results the province is seeking.

"I think we have to ask why they aren't going back," said Fernandez, who holds the Errol Black Chair in labour issues at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — Manitoba.

Many are in low-paying service-sector jobs, need access to child care, transit service has been reduced, and some have health-care concerns to consider during a pandemic, she said.

"You need to ask, 'Are you paying people enough?'" she said. "Could you give them some benefits? Some job security? Improving working conditions and giving people a living wage is how you get people to work... That $2,000 is not going to take those barriers away."

Tuesday's announcement left several questioning the logic of spending provincial money to get Manitobans to stop taking federal funds, while also cutting the hours of public-sector workers.

"They're laying off people at Manitoba Hydro who have work to do," Fernandez said. "This doesn't make any sense to me."

Meanwhile, the Tory premier was accused of trying to shame people collecting CERB.

NDP Opposition Leader Wab Kinew said Pallister is guilting them to go back to jobs that aren’t there, after his austerity measures cut the public sector and left businesses to fend for themselves during the pandemic.

"The fact the premier appears to not know how many Manitobans could even qualify for this program shows just how little effort he’s put into it," Kinew said in an email.

"He's not interested in actually helping families or businesses, he just wants to look like he is," he said, noting most of the Pallister government's allocated pandemic support program funds remain unspent.

This push will do little to restart the economy because it's overly complicated, filled with red tape, and does not address part-time workers, said Liberal Leader Dougald Lamont.

"The PCs are baselessly attacking CERB, when this is the program that actually helped Canadians through the pandemic while the Pallister government was missing in action," he said in a statement.

Carol Sanders

Carol Sanders
Legislature reporter

After 20 years of reporting on the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home, Carol moved to the legislature bureau in early 2020.

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Updated on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at 12:51 PM CDT: Removed map URL

5:48 PM: Updates story to final version

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