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Via Rail to lay off 1,000 employees amid coronavirus disruptions

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Amid ongoing travel restrictions and concerns about the novel coronavirus, Via Rail is planning 1,000 temporary layoffs, according to an internal email sent to employees on Wednesday afternoon by the railway company’s CEO Cynthia Garneau.

The announcement comes at a time when the national passenger rail company continues to experience service disruptions across most of its regional and national routes, including cancellation of all trains between Montreal and Halifax, and Toronto and Vancouver until at least the beginning of November.

Garneau explained in her email that members of Via Rail’s management could also be affected by layoffs.

Read more: Via Rail suspends some train service amid coronavirus outbreak

The company has cited uncertainty about COVID-19 as a reason for offering reduced booking options on some routes until at least the end of this year.

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In her email, Garneau noted that Via Rail had previously reduced and suspended services in March, based on a ridership decrease of more than 95 per cent, and that the company doesn’t anticipate ridership to rebound in the foreseeable future.

“We have had to make difficult decisions to deal with the situation as we gain a better understanding of the impacts of the pandemic on our operations,” she wrote.

Garneau also noted that the company has attempted to mitigate impacts of the pandemic on its workforce by allowing some to work full-time, part-time or to get paid at home while their work was suspended.

“Via Rail is now forced to reconsider its approach in order to further adjust to the increasing financial impacts this crisis has had on the company. Therefore we need to make TEMPORARY layoffs that could affect all types of employees,” she wrote.

“Some measures will also affect management and professional employees. A few scenarios are under consideration and we will get back to you quickly, no later than the end of July.”

She said that the company would be sending 1,000 layoff notices, after giving written notice to unionized employees with Unifor who could exercise displacement rights under their collective agreement.

Via Rail banks survival on high frequency rail project
Via Rail banks survival on high frequency rail project

Global News also obtained a copy of some “key messages” prepared for Via Rail management to deliver to the employees in order to give them notice of the layoffs.

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In the suggested messages, management was advised to tell some employees that they would only be temporarily affected and receive 70 per cent of their usual salary “to ensure a rapid return to service even if there is no need for them to be called back to work immediately.”

Garneau’s email and the internal messages both indicated that the layoffs would come into effect on July 24, following a formal notice that is required under the company’s collective agreement with its union.

Read more: Coronavirus: Via Rail announces new service suspensions amid COVID-19 pandemic

The news comes at a time when many Canadians are wondering how long job losses and high unemployment rates due to COVID-19 will continue. It also comes amid growing concerns about increased deficits and the government’s ability to provide financial stimulus in the future.

“Via Rail will continue to work on progressing its service resumption plan as the situation evolves with the goal of reintegrating its employees as soon as the customer demand allows it,” Garneau said in her email.

“Until then, your managers are there for you if you have any questions or concerns. We are going to go through this difficult period, and, once passed, I am confident that we will be in a position to reacquaint ourselves with growth and opportunities.”

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Global News contacted Via Rail for comment. A spokesperson replied with a statement that confirmed the layoffs along with a summary of the company’s reasons for taking this action.

Via Rail is owned by Canadian taxpayers but operates at arms length from the federal government.

The office of Transport Minister Marc Garneau said in an email that the government would “continue to work with Via Rail to find solutions and support workers and their families in these unprecedented times.”