Unions worry reducing public sector work week could worsen ‘economic misery’ of COVID-19 in Manitoba

By | April 14, 2020

Unions hoping to learn more details about the province’s proposed shortened work week for parts of the public sector say a meeting with government officials did little to illuminate what jobs will be deemed “non-essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday morning, Premier Brian Pallister announced his government is considering trimming spending on non-essential services, and cutting the length of the work week for some public sector workers not on the front lines of the coronavirus response.

The measures could help ensure spending goes toward front-line healthcare, Pallister said, and it could help avoid a wave of layoffs like what is happening in the private sector.

Representatives with Manitoba Government and General Employees Union, Manitoba Federation of Labour and the Canadian Union of Public Employees said a conference call with the province after the announcement Tuesday didn’t answer some of their most pressing questions.

“Provincial officials were unable to say what public services they think are not essential,” said Michelle Gawronsky, president of MGEU, which represents 32,000 workers in the province.

“We were left very concerned that government will designate many core public services as non-essential, and thereby undermine the services that keep us and our communities safe and healthy.”

Unions were told the only way to avoid significant layoffs would be if workers entered into work-sharing agreements and if the federal government let affected Manitoba workers qualify for its employment insurance program, said Gawronsky.

Pallister outlined one hypothetical scenario to media Tuesday morning that could allow affected workers to make about 75 per cent of their normal wages.

He suggested over the next four months workers not on the front lines go down to a two-day work week and collect EI for the remaining three days. 

Manitoba Federation of Labour president Kevin Rebeck says he is worried reducing the work week for the public sector could mean those worker are spending less money at local and small businesses. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Exactly who those workers are remains unclear, said MFL president Kevin Rebeck, who left the meeting with some of the same questions unanswered as Gawronsky.

He said there is a lack of clarity concerning which workforces will be defined as essential, and he is worried about a “one-size fits all approach.”

“We’re facing an unprecedented health crisis and people are looking to have public services there for them now more than ever,” said Rebeck.

“Local businesses are counting on people having money in their pocket to be able to keep their business afloat, and lightening more wallets while families see their bills pile up certainly seems like it will add to the economic misery, so I am worried what that means in terms of public services and our ability to deliver them, and our ability to be there for Manitobans.”

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Pallister said the province is hoping Manitoba unions support the idea so the federal government can allow it to come into effect.

Lee McLeod said he appreciates the Pallister government is looking for solutions, and unions wants to be a part of that work.

He said it’s important that redeploying some public sector workers to critical services should be a priority.

“It’s not as simple as reducing the number of workers,” said McLeod, Manitoba regional director for CUPE, which represents about 37,000 workers in the province.

“Those workers might be able to be used to come up with ways to support the front-line services and to be creative.”

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