City staff, school workers reinventing themselves to stave off layoffs due to COVID-19

By | April 3, 2020

While government and school workers are losing their jobs nationwide, many of their peers in Manitoba are bucking the trend — at least, for now. 

In Winnipeg, city employees are turning the phrase “other duties as assigned” into a mantra.

Library and recreation centre employees, whose jobs have become temporarily obsolete in an unexpected pandemic, are suddenly stocking shelves for Winnipeg Harvest, or filling sandbags to save homes prone to spring flooding.

These workers are telling their union, CUPE Manitoba, what else they’re suited for.

Some employees are proposing new tasks, union president Gord Delbridge said — and CUPE is compiling those ideas and sharing them with officials.

Maybe the employees could deliver library books to readers cooped up in their homes? Maybe employees could help with child-care?

Gord Delbridge, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500, says city workers are proposing new ideas to keep themselves busy and services functioning. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“We’re working together to find ways of making this work.” Delbridge said.

“At this point, all the discussions that we’re having with the city is that they’re with us, with keeping people employed and ensuring that they’re working.”

Still, the fear of government and school workers is palpable as they watch thousands of people lose their jobs from a contagious virus that’s choking the Canadian economy. 

Edmonton and Quebec City are letting go of 2,000 employees apiece. Calgary will cut 1,200 staff, while Windsor is reducing its ranks by 500 employees.

Revenues bleeding

Locally, governments are taking a big hit. Provincial revenues will be “way down,” Premier Brian Pallister warned last month, while pegging the government’s deficit at $5 billion. 

The City of Winnipeg could be more than $73 million in the red, a challenging number for a city mandated to balance its budget.

And it doesn’t help that municipalities have limited ways to earn income — it’s essentially property taxes, user fees and transfers from other governments, said Enid Slack, director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto.

“It’s going to be even harder because we’re seeing tax revenues potentially falling or at least being deferred,” she said.

“When you have to balance that budget, you either have to find another way to raise revenue — you have to go to provincial, federal governments for assistance — or you have to cut services.”

Educators are feeling uneasy as well.

It will be left to school divisions, education minister Kelvin Goertzen said on Tuesday, to decide if any support staff are laid off. The divisions are asked to reassign support staff whenever possible to support at-home learning, but it’s up to them if they choose to lay off employees.

“In these times, I think everybody is worried,” said Abe Araya, president of CUPE Manitoba and longtime employee at the Winnipeg School Division.

Work is plentiful: Araya

But he argues there’s no shortage of work.

One librarian he knows is busier than ever, supporting teachers and printing papers for students without computer access.

Educational assistants are still needed for one-to-one support, he said. Bus drivers could deliver course work.

It’s all hands on deck, Araya said.

“Kids are our future and we can’t afford for them to fall back on their school work.”

Louis Riel School Division superintendent Christian Michalik said administrators aren’t planning for layoffs.

“That’s not the approach we’re taking in Manitoba. Our approach is that right now we need to talk about how we reassign folks to a new reality.”

He said every school division is united in devising a plan to keep everyone employed and help students learn the best way they can.

“We don’t want to overburden parents with this role.”

Staff must meet the needs: province

The Manitoba government wouldn’t make any promises when asked about the future for their civil servants.

“Managers are working to ensure staff are able to do their work as safely as possible and the province is constantly reviewing the way its staff meets the needs of Manitobans,” the province said in a statement.

Workers in government departments are worried for their job security, Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, says. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“A lot of the services public servants provide are critical to the everyday lives of Manitobans and we are making every effort to ensure that work continues.”

That doesn’t satisfy the president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which represents 12,000 civil servants. 

“I’m being asked by different departments within government: Am I going to be needed? Are they going to keep me? Am I going to be laid off?” Michelle Gawronsky said. “Nobody’s telling us anything.”

MGEU wants the province to top up the employment insurance earnings of every Manitoban laid off during the pandemic. So far, Gawronsky said she hasn’t heard back. 

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