Staff cuts 'significantly impacted' Manitoba Hydro's response to storm, union says

The union that represents Manitoba Hydro workers says job cuts ordered by the province "significantly impacted" the Crown corporation's response to the snowstorm that battered southern Manitoba last week.

Manitoba Hydro says response was not 'staffing, supply or infrastructure-related'

Manitoba Hydro says it doesn't have the capacity to switch to support a mass switch from natural gas to electricity for home heating. (Ahmar Khan/CBC)

The union that represents Manitoba Hydro workers says job cuts ordered by the province "significantly impacted" the Crown corporation's response to the snowstorm that battered southern Manitoba last week.

The utility denies that, though, arguing it's dealing with issues "on a scale we've never seen before" following the storm, which brought strong winds along with wet, heavy snow last week.

Manitoba Hydro estimates the damage in the Interlake area alone includes 1,391 broken wooden poles, significant cross-arm damage and at least 38 downed transmission towers. There are about 3,000 poles down across the province.

Mike Espenell, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2034 — which represents Manitoba Hydro field employees — says that's a big job, especially for a corporation that has lost hundreds of employees since 2016.

"I think some of the recent staffing reductions that we've seen that were imposed by the current government have significantly impacted Manitoba Hydro's ability to respond to events like this," he told CBC News.

Manitoba Hydro announced a plan to cut 900 positions — representing 15 per cent of its total workforce — in 2017. Hydro said the reductions would come through retirements, "continued management of vacancies," and through a review and restructuring of middle management.

The Crown corporation said later that year that more than 800 employees had taken voluntary buyouts.

Hydro was also among the Manitoba Crown corporations ordered by the Progressive Conservative government in 2017 to cut 15 per cent of its management staff — a target exceeded by Hydro, Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries, and Manitoba Public Insurance.

More recently, new mandate letters asked the boards of the three Crown corporations to set a target of eight per cent reductions across all staff levels — both managerial and non-managerial.

"Many of those staff would've been intimately involved" in work such as repairing hydro poles, Espenell said.

Crews clean up on Oct. 14, after a snowstorm hit parts of Manitoba last week. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

He thinks Manitoba Hydro would have been more prepared to deal with the severe damage if the corporation hadn't made reductions to staff.

"I just think we'd just be better equipped, we'd have more equipment and we'd have more manpower. We'd be in a far better space," he said.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Hydro said its response was affected by a severe weather event, and was "not staffing, supply, or infrastructure-related."

"The materials required to rebuild our grid is on a scale we've never seen before," Bruce Owen said.

"We are obtaining materials from all sources to fix our system, get the light back on and get people back home." 

Owen says staff have been doing an impressive job of meeting the extreme challenges they're facing.

'The future is concerning'

But with scientists warning extreme weather events could become more commonplace, Espenell says he's worried about the future.

"I can say that our current staffing levels have been greatly impacted. Our ability to respond to these types of events [has] been greatly restricted with reductions to staffing, to equipment and material," he said.

"I would say the future is concerning."

Manitoba Hydro estimates at least 1,400 wooden poles were damaged by the storm in the rural municipality of West Interlake. (Submitted by Arnthur Jonasson)

Espenell said there are no plans he's aware of to hire more staff.

"I don't believe it's going to get any better," he said.

CBC News contacted the provincial ministry of Crown services, which oversees Manitoba Hydro, for comment. A spokesperson provided the following statement:

"Right now Manitoba's focus is first and foremost on safety and Manitoba Hydro's efforts to get people back on the grid. Hundreds of Hydro workers have been working since the storm to restore services for thousands of customers and we thank them for their hard work and dedication."


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