Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says the province will have no choice but to lay off public-sector employees if the federal government and unions do not buy into his plan to reduce their hours while allowing them to collect employment insurance.
The province cannot afford the status quo while revenues plunge during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pallister said.
“Frankly, if the unions and the federal government want to force us to do layoffs, we’ll have to do some layoffs,” he said on Thursday. “There’s no doubt about it.”
The private sector is already eligible for federal work share programs under which employees work reduced hours while getting employment insurance.
The Manitoba premier said on Thursday that Crown corporations qualify for the wage subsidy and some of them are developing plans to shorten the work weeks of employees, though spokespeople at Manitoba Hydro and Manitoba Public Insurance wouldn’t provide any details on those discussions.
Pallister said Thursday he would speak to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland within the next 24 hours about extending the federal wage subsidies program to the public sector. The temporary measure would avert the need for layoffs, he said.
The province has a right to the employment insurance fund, Pallister said, since he estimates Manitobans have paid $2 billion into the program in the last decade.
“This isn’t about asking Ottawa for money. This is about asking Ottawa to allow us to use our own money in a creative way so we don’t have to do layoffs.”
The province is looking at various plans for what a reduced work week might look like, Pallister said earlier this week, but those discussions are ongoing.
Under a hypothetical scenario he suggested, government workers who aren’t considered “front-line” employees could work two days a week and collect employment insurance for three days a week for the next four months, which would give them three-quarters of their salary in total.
A treasury board document posted online this week estimated the province would save $350 million if 60 per cent of non-essential staff from government entities, outside of core government, worked three days a week for the next 18 weeks.
The memo also suggests the government could boost the number of days a provincial employee could voluntarily take off without pay from 20 days to 35. The treasury would save approximately $340 million if 35,000 employees took off the 35 days.
Pallister has said he wants to have the support of unions for his wage subsidy plan, so the federal government will endorse it.
Several unions, however, have expressed concern. They haven’t been told which members will be considered non-essential, or how many.
“The government’s inability to provide critical details about what they are proposing is making it very difficult for us to have a meaningful conversation with our members,” said Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronsky, whose union represents 11,000 civil servants.
“Our members deserve to know what they are being asked to consider.”
If Manitoba convinced the federal government to absorb some of its labour costs, University of Manitoba economics professor Laura Brown suspects other provinces would make the same demands.
She doesn’t believe the federal government would be up for it.
“Just as the premier has said, ‘We all have to share the burden,’ I think the federal government might turn around and say, ‘We all have to share the burden,'” Brown said.
Pallister hinted on Wednesday he would announce some kind of direct provincial aid program early next week for Manitobans struggling because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Federal officials mulling idea
Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at the University of Manitoba, also doesn’t expect the premier to get his way.
“I think it’s bad public policy at this juncture,” Thomas told CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio on Thursday morning.
“It also will create a certain amount of division within the ranks of the civil service. Some people will be described as essential and others as non-essential, and he’ll have to get support of the unions that represent public-sector employees. I think it’s not worth the effort.”
Federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough told reporters on Wednesday that federal officials are discussing Pallister’s proposal.
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