City of Winnipeg ponders layoffs and transit cuts as COVID-19 pandemic drains revenue

As the COVID-19 emergency continues the city of Winnipeg is looking at potentially laying off some staff and reducing Transit service.

Mayor Brian Bowman says decisions on reducing staff coming "sooner than later"

Several Canadian cities have been forced to cut staff during health crisis. Mayor Brian Bowman says a decision on that in Winnipeg will come sooner than later. (Bert Savard/CBC)

The City of Winnipeg is moving closer to layoffs and cuts to transit service as the COVID-19 pandemic bites into its revenues.

Mayor Brian Bowman signaled on Tuesday that those decisions may happen in the not-to-distant future.

"The prospect of layoffs, as I'm indicating today, has obviously grown, and we'll have more to say on that sooner than later," Bowman told reporters on a briefing call. 

The city has redeployed approximately 70 staff as community ambassadors to help enforce physical distancing regulations and to work at Winnipeg Harvest.

"There has been tremendous effort to to try to redeploy as many people as possible and to avoid layoffs," Bowman said.

    Winnipeg would be among the last major Canadian municipalities to introduce cuts to it's work force. 

    A city report earlier this month predicted losses in revenue and growing expenses that could put Winnipeg in a $75 million hole by July.

    Bowman said any decision to cut staff would be a hard one to make, but the health orders prescribing physical distancing appear to be continuing for the near future.

    Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman said any decision to layoff staff "weighs heavily", but says the city may be close to that point. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

    "Certainly the prospect of layoffs has weighed heavily on me and I know other members of council," Bowman said. "It is becoming more and more apparent the pandemic efforts are going to last some time."

    Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister announced Tuesday that his government is looking at a shortened work week for public sector employees to avoid layoffs.

    Transit schedule may shrink as well

    Bowman also acknowledged there may be changes to operations at Winnipeg Transit.

    The city is currently running a full schedule of buses, despite their own numbers showing a 70 per cent decrease in ridership over last year.

    The city's new rapid transit line —called the Blue Line — between the downtown, the University of Manitoba and St. Norbert officially opened this past weekend.

    Bowman said Tuesday the city is looking closely at how the new transit corridor operates, as well as passenger numbers on routes across the city.

    Winnipeg Transit's Blue Line opened April 12, 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

    "Ridership is way down, and with the launch of Blue, we are reviewing the data while we consider those options," Bowman said.

    However, the union representing transit drivers and other workers thinks cutting service right now is not the safe way to go at this point.

    "Service is still required," said the Amalgamated Transit Union's John Callaghan. "[If ridership] is 70 per cent down, there are still 50,000 people a day on the bus. People going to work; going for groceries." 

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    The ATU says keeping more buses on the road allows for better physical distancing practices on board. 

    Callaghan said some buses are still full of passengers despite the health emergency and the city should have the capacity to meet that demand and follow health rules.

    "I'd much rather be criticized for doing too much than too little," Callaghan said. 

    Bowman said he would be discussing the issue of layoffs with city councillors. 


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