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Premier Brian Pallister wants many of Manitoba’s public-sector employees to accept a reduced work week – perhaps as short as two days – to help provincial coffers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The government will approach more than a dozen public-sector unions with the pitch that reduced hours for non-frontline workers in the civil service, at Crown corporations and elsewhere is better than job cuts, Pallister said Tuesday.

“I say that having the ability to work part-time … is better than being laid off,” he said.

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“We’re not talking about having people lose their jobs. What we’re proposing is to work with the public-sector unions to make sure that isn’t the case, as much as is possible.”

Pallister said details remain to be worked out, but gave as an example an employee working two days a week and drawing on employment insurance or other federal benefits for the other three days – netting about 75 per cent of their normal wages.

The move would free up money for front-line health-care services and other programs, Pallister said, and help cushion the fiscal blow the province is facing from COVID-19. He has estimated the pandemic could cost Manitoba $5 billion this year in extra health-care costs and reduced revenues from a weakened economy.

A treasury board document posted online Tuesday listed a number of financial pressures facing the province. Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries, which includes casinos that have been closed due to COVID-19, normally pumps $600 million a year into government revenue but could see negative cash flow for some time, the document said.

The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union said a meeting with provincial officials left questions unanswered.

“We were left very concerned that government will designate many core public services as non-essential, and thereby undermine the services that keep us and our communities safe and healthy,” union president Michelle Gawronsky said in a written statement.

“We will be hearing from our members in the coming days, and that will determine how we can best stand up for the public services Manitobans rely on.”

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The Manitoba Federation of Labour was also seeking details on how many workers might have to take reduced work weeks.

“We think we need to make sure that our public services remain strong and are there for Manitobans and families who need them,” federation president Kevin Rebeck said.

The Opposition New Democrats said the move would hurt people who already face financial strain.

“It will take money out of the pockets of families at a time when they need it most and it will put more pressure on an already strained economy,” NDP Leader Wab Kinew said in a written statement.

The reduced work week would not apply to politicians, Pallister said.

“They are not taking time off. They are working full time.”

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The government did announce some financial aid for health-care workers. Those who are required to self-isolate for 14 days due to possible exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace – even if they show no symptoms – will now receive paid administrative leave.

Provincial health officials announced no new COVID-19 cases or deaths on Tuesday. There have been 246 cases to date – 142 of them remain active, including four people in intensive care. Four people have died since the pandemic began.

“The message right now is that … our low numbers are very likely a reflection of the (social-distancing) efforts that Manitobans have been putting in,” said Dr. Brent Roussin, chief public health officer.

“We know that if we let up on this now, we could see a reversal in this trend and start seeing these numbers climb.”

Roussin said the virus will be around for a while, but some restrictions on crowd gatherings and store closings could be loosened in the near future. Health officials will look for a downward trend in the number of active cases and for more days with little or no new cases, he added.

“It’s really early to make that judgment now, but a week of this, and without any other indicators, then that’s going to make us think of what sort of things could we do to ease some of the restrictions without compromising our gains.”

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