Manitoba schools, Crown corporations sketch out ways to cut employee costs by 30%

By | April 21, 2020

The Manitoba government wants to know how Crown corporations, school divisions and universities can handle cutting their payrolls by up to 30 per cent.

The province instituted a Tuesday deadline for publicly funded bodies to draw up workforce-reduction scenarios, as the government copes with a sharp drop in revenue during the global coronavirus pandemic.

The plans are supposed to provide three scenarios for how organizations like the University of Manitoba and Manitoba Public Insurance could slash employee costs by 10, 20 or 30 per cent, over a period between May 1 and Aug. 31.

Several of the government-funded organizations are asking for credit for the belt-tightening they’ve already done.

Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries has temporarily laid off nearly half of its workforce during the pandemic — more than 1,300 of the 2,800 people normally on its payroll.

A spokesperson said the Crown corporation will explain those measures in its submission to government. Liquor & Lotteries cut employees by closing casinos and VLTs, while “subsequently decreasing or eliminating non-essential support functions throughout our business.”

‘Pretty much impossible’ to cut

Seven Oaks School Division superintendent Brian O’Leary said it is “pretty much impossible” to actually cut as much as the government wants the proposals to outline.

He said one of the division’s employee groups has a no-layoff clause, while another needs a one-month notice before any cuts.

The northwest Winnipeg school division is temporarily cutting the jobs of 47 educational assistants and 27 bus drivers. The jobs of 13 more departing EAs won’t be filled.

Seven Oaks found meaningful work for other employees, said O’Leary, who adds the division has an obligation to support remote learning.

“We did give it a really solid effort to say what savings are we realizing while still supporting our kids,” he said.

When asked if the province would be annoyed Seven Oaks didn’t provide a proposal to meet the mandated targets, O’Leary said his division was told to give the exercise their best effort.

“We’ve kind of submitted our response in good faith and we trust that they’ll accept that, and if they have a problem, I guess they’ll be getting back to us.”

Winnipeg School Division spokesperson Radean Carter couldn’t speak to the contents of her division’s report, but said it found $9.4 million in savings by cutting 330 jobs for the rest of the school year, and through lower costs for utilities and fuel due to the cancellation of in-school classes.

Altogether, the division cut budgeted expenses for April, May and June by 29 per cent, she said.

Officials at Manitoba Public Insurance were still negotiating a workplace-reduction strategy with the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union on Tuesday, spokesperson Brian Smiley said.

A number of options were on the table, from a work-share program in which employees work fewer hours and use employment insurance to cover the shortfall, to shortened work weeks or outright layoffs.

Manitoba Hydro hasn’t finalized employee plans either, spokesperson Bruce Owen said.

The public utility is also looking at “eliminating discretionary, non-essential costs, delaying planned construction and reducing fleet renewal,” he said.

‘Do your part in the public sector’: Pallister

Premier Brian Pallister said the collapse of Manitoba’s economy shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of private businesses alone.

“Look, 96 per cent of the job loss in Manitoba is in the private sector. If you have any sympathy at all for that, then do your part in the public sector,” he said. 

Pallister has said he prefers reduced work weeks to layoffs, but said job cuts may be unavoidable if the federal government is willing to pick up a share of the lost wages through employment insurance.

Without support from Ottawa or the unions thus far, Pallister said layoffs are “absolutely” the next step.

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says the public sector shouldn’t expect it will be immune from some measure of job loss. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

“We need to find hundreds of millions [of dollars for the front-line] and we’re going to find those resources, not just by borrowing on Manitoba’s future but by looking within our organization to find resources in areas where people are not able to serve the public right now,” he said.

The largest union representing Manitoba’s public servants was asked last Friday to lobby Ottawa for a shorter work week for non-essential workers or to expect layoffs.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union hasn’t supported the plan, saying Pallister’s government hasn’t explained which workers would see their weeks reduced, how many would be affected, or what timeline would be involved.

It has been asking for details for a week, president Michelle Gawronsky said.

“I feel it’s really unfair of [Pallister] to try and take the pressure off himself by pointing the finger at the federal government and the unions, and he is the one that is not providing the unions with the information that we need,” she said.

“He has the direct link to the prime minister. He can pick up the phone and phone him — I can’t.”

Gawronsky adds the union has been negotiating with the public bodies sketching out workforce-reduction proposals. She hopes to keep as many people employed as possible, some through redeployments.

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