Response times for electricity outages will suffer as Manitoba Hydro temporarily lays off 200 employees to meet provincial cost-saving demands, says a union leader.
The vast majority of workers targeted for four-month layoffs, announced by the Crown corporation Friday, are field staff who respond to storms and fix equipment, said Mike Espenell, business manager for International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034.
“It will definitely have an effect on our ability to respond,” he said.
Espenell said the layoffs are at odds with comments from Premier Brian Pallister, who has routinely praised front-line workers during the pandemic.
“Our staff have worked right through this,” Espenell said. “They’re not sitting at home.”
Hydro CEO Jay Grewal announced the layoffs in a memo to staff on Friday morning.
‘Not our preferred course of action’
“This absolutely was not our preferred course of action,” Grewal wrote.
The Crown corporation was left with no choice but to lay off members from IBEW Local 2034 — which represents most front-line field employees, such as workers at generating stations and on transmission lines — and Unifor, according to Grewal.
Hydro couldn’t reach an agreement on another method to find labour cost savings, she said.
Officials with the corporation are still consulting with the Canadian Union of Public Employees on a potential strategy.
The 200 temporary layoffs aren’t nearly as dire as the 600 to 700 layoffs Hydro said last month would be needed to meet provincial demands to save $11 million. Negotiations followed with unions and layoffs have been avoided in some cases.
Grewal said Friday she hopes Hydro can maintain service levels with fewer staff.
“We will make all efforts to minimize the impact of these temporary layoffs on service to customers, while also maintaining the safety of our system and employees in every aspect of our operation.”
Of the 190 IBEW members targeted for layoffs, 95 per cent work on the front lines, Espenell said.
Last October, those same workers were celebrated for responding to the freak snowstorm that knocked down trees and power lines in southern Manitoba.
“It appears that not that many months later, it’s very much, ‘What have you done for me lately?'” he said.
The Progressive Conservative government has insisted Hydro must cut spending in non-essential areas to help the Manitoba government respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A dozen members of Unifor are also slated to be laid off, said Victor Diduch, acting president of Unifor Local 681. Many of those are the employees who would respond in the event of a gas leak or explosion.
“It’s like taking firemen out of going to a fire,” he said. “The less people you have, the longer things take.”
Grewal acknowledged in her email the news will be hard for employees to hear.
“This is difficult information I am communicating to you today. I want all of you to know that we worked hard to avoid getting to this point. The reality is we have no more flexibility,” she said.
“I urge you all to continue to support each other and work safely as we move through this challenging period.”
Some employees accept unpaid days
Another group of Hydro employees — the Association of Manitoba Hydro Staff and Supervisory Employees — accepted three unpaid days off in lieu of layoffs, Grewal stated.
The union joins the Manitoba Hydro Professional Engineers’ Association, utility executives and other senior staff in choosing to dock their pay over 20 pay periods, beginning June 25, to stave off any layoffs.
Espenell and Diduch said the three-day proposal wasn’t acceptable to them, because it would have required violating the collective bargaining agreement they negotiated with Hydro.
Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew cast blame on Pallister’s focus on cost-cutting.
“Two hundred front-line job cuts are a clear sign that Mr. Pallister is willing to cause chaos and hurt to working families for partisan, ideological reasons,” he said in a statement.
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