Today, on short notice, the provincial government invited MGEU and other public sector unions to a meeting about "the financial and workforce sustainability implications of COVID-19." The only details we knew about the meeting in advance came from what the Premier told news media over the past 24 hours.
What we heard from the provincial government today
At this afternoon's meeting, provincial officials said they are looking at layoffs for those who deliver so-called "non-essential" public services. We were told that the only way to avoid layoffs across Manitoba's public sector would be to voluntarily:
- expand employees' ability to participate in a Voluntary Reduced Work week to 35 days/year; and/or
- reach work-sharing agreements where "non-essential" staff would have their work week reduced to as little as 2 days per week. Impacted workers would get EI for the lost work days. For those who earn less than $54,000/year, that would mean keeping about 70% of their regular pay, and avoiding a layoff. Those earning more would keep a smaller percentage of their regular pay.
The work-sharing option would only be possible for provincial government workplaces if the federal government approves the employer to be eligible. At this time, the federal government has not made provincial governments eligible employers; that means this option will not be available for the civil service without federal approval. The province has asked public sector unions to jointly lobby the federal government to make the province eligible for the work-sharing EI program.
Provincial officials were unable to say what public services they think are non-essential for the purposes of their work-sharing proposal.
As we did when casino workers were laid off, MGEU pressed provincial officials on the conference call to look seriously at redeployment of workers to the most essential public services. When we made this appeal for casino workers, some were redeployed instead of being laid off. We know that there is more than enough essential work to be done though this crisis to keep public workers very busy.
These officials also made it clear that they intend to make decisions about these matters very quickly.
MGEU's response -- we need to hear from you (our members)
We listened to what the government had to say, asked questions, and said we need to hear from MGEU members before responding.
We were left very concerned that the government will designate many core public services as non-essential, and thereby undermine the services that keep us and our communities healthy and safe.
The reality is that health care isn't the only essential public service. Flood protection and water control must continue. We need our justice system to keep operating. Drinking water and food production safety standards need to be upheld. Child protection workers need to ensure children are safe and families are supported. Workplace safety and health inspectors need to keep enforcing the rules that protect workers from COVID-19. Government computer networks need to be kept running and maintained. Government purchasing and procurement of vital supplies to fight the pandemic and flood risk must continue. Vital statistics staff must continue issuing the documents that laid off Manitobans need to apply for benefits. And there are so many more vital public services that need to be supported, now more than ever.
We agree that layoffs are not the answer. The role of government in a crisis like this is to keep people safe, and to help keep the economy going - to make sure Manitobans are working enough to pay their bills and to spend in the local economy.
We need to ensure the vital public services that Manitobans rely on continue to be delivered.
In the coming days, we will be consulting with MGEU's elected workplace representatives about what they're hearing from members. If members want their voices heard, make sure to reach out to the elected local leadership. If you aren't sure who they are, contact the MGEU Resource Centre and they will put you in touch.
At the same time, MGEU will be reaching out to employers to ask hard questions about what they mean when they talk about "non-essential" public services, and to get more details about what the government's proposals would mean for you.
Now is the time keep talking!
We know this announcement is going to create even more fear and anxiety during an already stressful time for us all. As we learn more, please be assured our union will keep members updated. It's vital right now that we keep the lines of communication open. MGEU is here to speak up for you and the critical public services we all rely on!
This update was posted on April 14, 2020. Because this situation is evolving rapidly, we encourage you to visit the MGEU's COVID-19 Information page for the latest information.