The Manitoba Agricultural Services Corporation is facing a 20 per cent cut to salary costs as a result of the pandemic, a move the employees’ union says left it "flabbergasted."
In a May 1 letter provided to The Brandon Sun by an anonymous source and confirmed by the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, MASC president Jared Munro said the Crown corporation is required to cut its yearly salary expenses by 20 per cent by March 31, 2021.
"With the requirement that savings come from salaries, this presents us with an extremely challenging situation that will require some significant actions. At this time, it is expected that we will need to reduce adjusting activities, avoid usage of casual administrative staff, change service delivery methods, reduce work weeks for all employees and reduce our workforce," Munro wrote.
The letter says the cuts are due to the "economic conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic."
Munro could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
MASC provides crop insurance to producers in Manitoba. In February, the Sun reported the corporation received 41 per cent more claims in 2019 than in 2017.
The move came as a surprise to the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union, which represents workers at the corporation, said union president Michelle Gawronsky.
According to Gawronsky, approximately 12 layoffs are certain at MASC so far. Workers in administration have also been asked to take 35 unpaid days off in the current year to avoid another 10 to 38 layoffs. Negotiations are ongoing with the province on those unpaid days off.
"To me, the lowest blow you can do is to start hitting the farmers — I don’t understand," she said. "These folks support our farmers, they support the farming community … this is our bread and butter, these are the people who are going to feed us and now we’re going to put them at risk?"
The union also takes issue with the fact that MASC has hired summer students while laying off full-time employees. While she didn’t know how many summer students have been hired, she said now is not the time.
"They’re going to fire the parent and hire the student," she said.
During a Tuesday morning press conference, Premier Brian Pallister said MASC had been "undergoing changes, even before the pandemic." He said some technological changes to the organization were planned before COVID-19 put a squeeze on provincial finances.
"There’s not enough work for everybody right now, I can say that for sure," he said.
Gawronsky disputes this, however, and said the workload for employees at MASC is unchanged by the pandemic. She said MASC is hiring insurance adjusters, and farmers still need the same level of support through this growing season.
Agri-insurance offered by MASC is a key part of the farm economy, said Keystone Agricultural Producers president Bill Campbell. It provides a base level of revenue for farmers around the province.
Crop insurance claims take a great deal of data analysis to process, which in turn takes proper staffing. Campbell said KAP is concerned about any staff cut at MASC considering how vitally important crop insurance is to producers, especially with the rough 2019 many experienced.
Insurance adjusters are also needed through the summer months in case of hail damage to crops or predators killing livestock, he said.
NDP Leader Wab Kinew also took issue with the salary cut, saying he is concerned reduced staff will make it more difficult for producers to access services. He said the party is also worried the layoffs will become permanent.
"if you thought you were already having a tough time getting ahold of someone at MASC, you’re going to be waiting even longer as a result of this decision," he said.
A spokesperson for Minister of Agriculture and Resource Development Blaine Pedersen referred back to Pallister’s press conference when asked for comment.
» Twitter: @DrewMay_
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