The union that represents Manitoba corrections officers contends the province would save money by hiring more jail staff.
The Manitoba Government and General Employees Union said Wednesday a failure to beef up staffing levels at the provincial jails amounts to a false economy.
In a pre-budget submission to Finance Minister Stan Struthers, the MGEU urged the province to hire 50 new officers -- as a start. It said, given the current jail population, it would take an additional 250 officers to raise staffing back to 2004-05 levels.
Although it didn't have figures, the union said overtime costs are skyrocketing because of the staffing crunch. Sixteen-hour shifts are not uncommon at facilities such as Headingley Correctional Centre, union officials said.
Crowded jails, understaffing and increased overtime shifts are causing staff to burn out, driving up the numbers of workers taking sick leave or stress leave. But when someone is away sick, a colleague winds up working overtime.
"It's just a big vicious circle," said MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky after a one-hour meeting with Struthers on Wednesday.
Scott Cloney, a Headingley corrections officer and an MGEU vice-president, said any open shift at the jail during the current two-week pay period is an overtime shift.
The facility has some 80 to 90 part-time staff who cover those shifts, which occur, for example, when workers are on vacation or have to escort inmates on medical appointments. But right now, all of the part-timers are working full-time hours, so any new shift that comes open is an overtime one.
"There's been more and more of this happening," Cloney said.
With stress and sick leaves on the rise, the government is often paying three times for one worker, Cloney added. It's paying a full-time shift for the person who is away and paying double time (the overtime rate) for his or her replacement.
Justice officials could not immediately quantify the overtime bill.
Struthers said Wednesday he wouldn't rule out that dozens of new corrections staff may need to be hired.
"That will be something that we take into consideration as we move through to budget day," he said of the union's hiring request.
The government, struggling with its bottom line, has promised to reduce the size of the province's public service by 600 positions, through attrition, over the next three years. Business leaders have already complained this goal is not ambitious enough.
In its brief Wednesday, the MGEU implored the government to protect public services even if it means a delay in balancing the province's books. It also recommended tax increases for corporations and top income earners (households with before-tax annual incomes of $200,000 or more). It said the government can hold the line on costs by delaying the introduction of new programs.
The latest projection is for the provincial deficit to reach $567 million in the current fiscal year.
Poll shows priorities
The MGEU released the results of a provincial poll it commissioned on Manitobans' budget priorities. The survey found:
47% of Manitobans ranked protecting public services as their top budget priority, as opposed to stimulating the economy (20% said this was their top priority), balancing the budget (18.6%) or cutting taxes (11%).
49% of Manitobans would prefer a small tax increase to protect public services, while 29% would prefer service cuts in place of a tax hike.
80% would welcome higher taxes on corporations and households with pre-tax annual incomes of $200,000 to support key services.
77% said it was more important to protect services than balancing the budget by a specific date.
Given the choice of paying a bit more in taxes or seeing a service's funding cut, the survey found:
78.7% of Manitobans would pay more for home care for the elderly (12.2% would cut funding).
77.4 % would pay more to help protect children at risk (13.4%).
62.2% would pay more for highway snow-clearing and maintenance (22.6%).
60.6% would pay more for inspecting food in restaurants and processing plants (28.1%).
56.9% would pay more for environmental monitoring of Manitoba lakes and rivers (33.8%).
-- the MGEU commissioned Viewpoints Research to conduct the poll. Viewpoints interviewed 805 Manitobans between Jan. 22 and Jan. 31. Results are considered accurate within 3.2 percentage points 19 times out of 20.