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

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.

Premier proposed possibility as way of avoiding layoffs, reducing spending on non-essential services for now

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says his government is mulling plans to reduce the work week for public sector workers deemed non-essential to the front-line coronavirus response. Unions are concerned with how this might impact Manitoba's economy. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

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."

The chair of Brandon University's political science department said it isn't always easy to determine what is or isn't an essential service, let alone during a pandemic.

A woman sits at her desk smiling.
Kelly Saunders, chair of the political science department at Brandon University, says reduced work weeks could be complicated if households have already lost income. (Submitted by Kelly Saunders)

"That can be a fine line, and you want to make sure that this is not an excuse by the provincial government to maybe see some significant cuts in the public sector, maybe get rid of what they deem to be unnecessary middle management or something like that," said Kelly Saunders, associate professor of political science at BU.

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 Premier Brian Pallister says reducing the work week for some public sector workers not on the frontline could help the province save money that could go toward services critical to the COVID-19 response. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Ensuring the federal government agrees to kick in EI payments for those three days is one "major piece" that needs to be worked out for such a scenario to work, said Saunders.

Another complicating factor is that many public sector workers may have already seen a drop in household income due to a spouse losing a job during the pandemic.

"It's one thing to say they can go down to two or three days a week, but depending on the situation of the family that might not be possible," said Saunders.

"I think civil servants recognize that everyone needs to do their part and I know they're certainly willing to do it, but it has to be done in a way that is transparent, that is fair, and that is not going to cause additional burdens on families that are already feeling significant burdens." 

MFL president Kevin Rebeck 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."

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)

"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."

With files from Ian Froese and Nicholas Frew