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Manitoba premier offers more summer job money, defends hydro job cuts


May 12, 2020
By Steve Lambert/The Canadian Press

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Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister's government is planning substantive labour law changes. (Photo: Premier's Office)

Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister offered millions of dollars more for summer jobs Tuesday while defending job cuts at Crown-owned Manitoba Hydro.

Pallister said the government will spend up to $10 million for this year’s Green Team program, which gives money to community groups, municipalities and provincial parks to hire young people over the summer for environmental work.

It is almost double last year’s $5.5 million and is aimed at ensuring young people can get work despite COVID-19’s economic fallout, Pallister said.

“We know that the private sector is struggling right now … so it’s important that we, through our government programs, up our game,” he said.

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Manitoba Hydro layoffs

The announcement came one day after Manitoba Hydro said it plans to temporarily lay off 600 to 700 employees for a four-month period as part of government-wide cost-cutting to deal with the pandemic’s fiscal impact.

Crown corporations, universities and other public bodies were told by the Progressive Conservative government last month to map out three scenarios for reducing labour costs from May through August — by 10, 20 and 30 per cent.

The temporary layoffs at Manitoba Hydro work out to more than 10 per cent of the full-time equivalent positions listed in the utility’s last annual report.

Pallister said the temporary job cuts at the Crown utility are justified because there is less work being done. Some construction projects have been scaled back during the pandemic and door-to-door meter readings in residential areas have been suspended.

He also said keeping Hydro spending down will prevent the debt from climbing.

“You can ignore the pandemic, increase the debt at Hydro … and then we’ll just have less money to work with going forward and a longer period of (economic) recovery.”

Union cites heavy workloads

The union that represents many office and technology workers at the utility said employees are already facing heavy workloads because of hundreds of job cuts the Progressive Conservative government undertook after winning the 2016 election.

“I know that CUPE members are working flat out and were already strained by the hundreds of people laid off in the last few years,” said Liz Carlyle, a negotiator for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

Unionized workers offered alternatives such as job-sharing, Carlyle said, but were told by the utility that the only options were temporary layoffs or a temporary eight per cent wage cut.

The utility said Tuesday it is willing to look at some options, but did not mention specifics.

“Manitoba Hydro remains open to working with our bargaining units to look at ways we can achieve the required savings, and minimize the impact on our employees and the service we provide to Manitobans,” Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen wrote in an email.

Few new cases

Health officials reported one new COVID-19 case in Manitoba Tuesday, continuing a trend of zero or single-digit daily increases.

The new case is related to a small cluster at a workplace in western Manitoba that had previously reached 10 people. Officials said there was no cause for public concern, because affected workers and their close contacts were self-isolating.

Manitoba has had 290 confirmed and probable cases since the pandemic began. Seven people have died.