Front-line Manitoba COVID-19 workers to get one-time 'risk payment'

Front-line workers in the battle against COVID-19 should expect some additional compensation, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said on Wednesday.

Money will come from an estimated $120 million made available by provincial, federal governments

The province has partnered with the federal government to provide a one-time "risk payment" to those on the front line. Premier Brian Pallister expects it to be "four figures," maybe $1,000 or so. (Paul Sancya/The Associated Press)

Front-line workers in the battle against COVID-19 should expect some additional compensation, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said on Wednesday.

The province has partnered with the federal government to provide a one-time "risk payment" to those on the front line. It will come from an estimated $120 million being made available for the payments — three-quarters provided by the federal government and one-quarter from the province.

Pallister said the federal government should be applauded for that.

Workers will be able to register for the payment through an online application program. However, it's not clear yet who exactly is eligible. Pallister said those details are to come.

The union representing grocery store employees, security guards and personal-care workers welcomed additional income, albeit with a word of caution.

"As a society, we shouldn't be in a position where we have to determine a list of which underpaid workers deserve eligibility," said Jeff Traeger, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 832.

"We should be talking about establishing fair wages and benefits for everyone, now and always."

Health-care workers would also be likely candidates for assistance. The union representing health-care workers such as lab workers, nutritionists and diagnostic machine operators said it wants to know more about the government's plans.

"The problem is they might be trying to pit one group against the other," said Bob Moroz, president of the Manitoba Association of Health Care Professionals.

"We believe our people should be protected, but so should everyone else in Manitoba."

Pallister was asked at the Wednesday morning news conference for a ballpark figure on how much people might expect. He surmised it may be "four figures," maybe $1,000 or so.

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The premier also announced what he calls an economic opportunities advisory board to help Manitoba recover from the pandemic. Among other things, that 18-member board will decide on the amounts of the payments to front-line workers.

"This board of leaders in sectors including business, technology, financial services and training will draw on its expertise to provide advice to the government on leading Manitoba's renewed growth following the public health crisis," he said.

"Its members will work as a team to find opportunities for economic recovery and growth, based on the strengths of Manitobans and the province's communities and industries, so Manitoba emerges stronger and more resilient than ever before."

The board includes leaders in Manitoba in transportation, real estate, agriculture, education and manufacturing, among a range of other sectors, the province said. Curt Vossen, president and CEO of Richardson International, will serve as chair. 

They have been given a mandate of 18 months to advise the government on ways to harness private-sector capital and investment to recover and create jobs and economic growth across the province.

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"This team of leaders will provide the best possible direction for unleashing private-sector capital and investment for our province," said Pallister.

"The way forward is to foster entrepreneurship and technological growth toward longer-term economic resilience and sustainability."

Questions about cuts

Pallister's optimistic tone about the efforts to get the province's economy back on track turned prickly when he was pressed on the province's civil service cuts.

According to Statistics Canada, 2.1 per cent of Manitoba public-sector workers lost their jobs between February and April, but that doesn't include the recently announced cuts of up to 700 workers at Manitoba Hydro or layoffs at the University of Winnipeg.

Asked why his province is the only one to cut a broad swath through the civil service to deal with the pandemic, Pallister quickly said that Manitoba is not the only province to do so, adding "I would emphasize that these are temporary measures to deal with the reality of the situation."

"There are facilities that are not open right now that don't need staff in them to clean and maintain them. There are cafeterias that aren't serving food," he said. "There are conferences that don't need to be attended."

That means there is money to be saved now, he said, that can be put to "better use in the fall when we have more needs for online courses, for example, at the post-secondary level.… What's widely been misinterpreted as cuts is actually a reallocation of funds from a period of low demand."

Drivers and cyclists took part in a honk-a-thon at the legislative building on Wednesday. (Patrick Foucault/Radio-Canada)

At the same time Pallister was being questioned, a line of vehicles and cyclists was gathering outside the legislative building for a noon-hour "honk-a-thon" to protest provincial cuts.

Signs denouncing the cuts were staked into the lawn in front of the building while flags and banners were waved out of the windows of the circling cars.

Pallister was also asked if Brandon University has been approached about cutting expenses. Unhappy with the phrasing, Pallister again used the moment to clarify what his government is doing.

"What has been miscategorized from the get-go here is that this is an instruction to cut. It is nothing of the kind. It has never been," he said.

"It is a question of priorization and, given the pandemics realities, there are lower needs for some services. Some positions, frankly, don't have work to do. So we're asking people to come up with savings ideas on a temporary basis so that we can free up resources for front-line work.

"The fact of the matter is we can't just pay people when there's not work."