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Coronavirus: Manitoba unions wary of provincial work-reduction proposal

Manitoba unions wary of provincial work-reduction proposal
Manitoba’s public-sector unions are wary of a proposed plan by Premier Brian Pallister to reduce the work week for non-essential government workers and Crown corporation employees in an effort to save money and avoid layoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Global's Erik Pindera has more.

Manitoba’s public-sector unions are wary of a proposed plan by Premier Brian Pallister to reduce the work week for non-essential government workers and Crown corporation employees in an effort to save money and avoid layoffs amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposal would see civil servants and other employees deemed non-essential — excluding health-care sector employees and teachers — work as few as two days a week while collecting federal employment insurance for the other days through a federal work share program.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Manitoba government employees asked to consider reduced work week

However, public-sector employees are not currently able to access that program, although the federal government loosened restrictions to allow Manitoba’s Crown corporation employees to use the program.

The province invited the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU), along with other public-sector unions, to a Tuesday conference call to discuss the premier’s proposal on “short notice,” according to a statement from Michelle Gawronsky, MGEU’s president.

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“Provincial officials were unable to say what public services they think are not essential,” Gawronsky’s statement reads.

The unions left concerned the provincial government will designate “many core public services as non-essential,” Gawronsky said, adding that the unions need to hear from their members before making any decisions.

“I can’t say whether I would support it as is, because I don’t know what as is really means — I don’t know who we are talking about,” Gawronsky said in an interview.

“We’re asking them to provide us with the information — let’s sit down, figure this out sooner rather than later, let’s make sure if sandbagging is needed, we have folks there that can sandbag, if it means we need hospitals cleaned, we need essential workers elsewhere — let’s put these people to work and keep them in their paycheques.”

The Manitoba Federation of Labour’s president echoed similar sentiments.

“We’re facing an unprecedented public health crisis where people are relying on public services now more than ever,” Kevin Rebeck, president of the MFL, said in an interview. “We’re concerned about what this means, about how far-reaching it will be. We didn’t really hear which workers they’re talking about, and that makes me very uneasy.”

Manitoba government employees asked to consider reduced workweek
Manitoba government employees asked to consider reduced workweek

Meanwhile, Pallister discussed the proposal with federal Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, he said on Tuesday.

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But Freeland’s office did not answer directly when asked by Global National whether Manitoba public employees will get a special exemption from the employment insurance rules in order for Pallister to implement the work-reduction plan.

“To support Canadians during this extraordinary time, we have already implemented, among other measures, CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit], a 75 per cent wage subsidy for workers, and a deferral of GST/HST payments and income taxes,” a statement from Freeland’s spokesperson reads. “Every step of the way, we have been in communication with our provincial and territorial partners. This is a time for us to work together, which we are doing.”

Asked Wednesday about Pallister’s proposal, federal Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough said the federal government has not yet made any decisions.

“We had a number of public-sector employers reach out to see how they can be supported, either through EI work sharing to perhaps a wage subsidy,” Qualtrough said. “I know that there’s ongoing discussions.”

READ MORE: Hours reduced at several U.S.-Canada border crossings in Manitoba amid coronavirus pandemic

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

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Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.