3% of Manitoba government employees 'aren't needed right now,' premier says in defence of workforce cuts
Province announced earlier this week that it will cut non-essential workforce expenditures by 2.2%
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister says a number of civil servants aren't needed in the province's response to the costly coronavirus pandemic.
Pallister was on the defensive during question period at the legislature Wednesday — the first question period since a one-day emergency sitting on April 15 — when asked to explain how many government employees could lose their jobs as the province moves to cut workforce costs by 2.2 per cent.
"We have a bunch of offices closed. Three per cent of our people aren't needed right now," the premier said.
"We have offices that don't need receptionists. We have vehicles [that] don't need to be evaluated 'cause they haven't been in an accident. We have tons of administration that doesn't need to be done."
After initially telling government departments, post-secondary institutions and Crown corporations to prepare for a reduction of up to 30 per cent over four months, the province announced earlier this week it will instead cut non-essential workforce expenditures by 2.2 per cent over the entire year in response to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
A small percentage of public servants can continue to serve the public by reducing their hours, Pallister said Wednesday, adding that dozens of non-front-line workers have already volunteered to take time off.
He insisted his government isn't interested in laying anybody off, but would rather implement a work-share program in which some employees work reduced hours while receiving employment insurance.
Comments 'disrespectful:' Kinew
Manitoba's Progressive Conservative government faced repeated questioning on Wednesday from the Opposition New Democrats on the workforce reductions and measures to reduce expenses by $860 million, which the province announced on Monday.
The government hasn't revealed how many employees will be affected by either reduced hours or layoffs. Pallister said negotiations with public sector unions are continuing.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew argued the government is missing the mark.
"I think that was very disrespectful to tell people that they're not needed. That's not the right approach," he said in an interview.
"Any leader right now should be saying, 'We're fighting for every single job.…' There's so much need in the community right now."
In a conference call with reporters, Pallister continued to assert that some employees aren't needed right now.
He offered his sympathy when asked what he'd say to art gallery and museum employees who are out of work.
The Manitoba Museum announced last week it was laying off more than 40 employees, following previous layoffs in April.
"Well, I'd say I'm sorry your job is lost, but the work didn't need to be done right now and I'm looking forward to having the economy resurge so that you'll be able to get your jobs back," Pallister said.
For weeks, the premier has defended his cost-cutting plans while facing a budget deficit that the finance minister has estimated could reach $5 billion this fiscal year alone — a projection that has been disputed.
Pallister said it isn't responsible for his government to strain future generations with excessive borrowing costs, when some civil servants aren't busy.
Pallister will donate $200 seniors benefit
Pallister also defended Wednesday the one-time $200 cheque the province will give to every senior, regardless of income level, to help with increased COVID-19 costs.
The premier announced Tuesday that the benefit will go to all Manitobans 65 or older who filed a tax return in 2018 — a group which incudes Pallister.
He defended the benefit plan, saying it would have taken months to establish an income-tested program.
He also applauded the Manitobans who have chosen to donate their cheque, but did not immediately answer a question about whether he planned to do so himself.
Pallister's office later told CBC News he would be donating his cheque.
He also announced that 800 of the 1,000 Manitoba businesses that applied for a provincial loan have already received a payment. Applications were accepted beginning late last week.
The legislature will sit every Wednesday for the rest of the month, under physical distancing protocols which will see only some of the province's MLAs in the chamber.
There are plans to incorporate the remaining MLAs into the sitting virtually to ensure every legislator can participate.