Reg Warkentin: Private sector workers can sympathize with public service cuts

As the United Conservative government attempts to tackle the massive deficit resulting from a weak economy, low energy prices and spending increases under the NDP, it was inevitable that the wages of the public sector would face scrutiny.

First, it is important to recognize the incredibly important role of our public servants, such as ensuring our children and young adults get a high quality education, our sick receive the health care they need, and our roads are built and safe for travel.

As Albertans, it’s in all our best interests to ensure our province is able to attract and retain skilled nurses, physicians, teachers, social workers and so on.

Second, it is worth noting the most recent Statistics Canada employment survey showed another consecutive increase in unemployment.

Here in Red Deer, with our 8.6 per cent unemployment rate, there are 8,600 fewer people working in our region than there were a year ago.

There are 10,100 people actively looking for employment opportunities, and given the drop in the participation rate, thousands more who have given up hope and stopped trying to find work.

Wages for our small business owners who have managed to keep afloat have dropped as well. I’ve heard on several occasions of local business owners using their personal savings to pay bills, make payroll and avoid further layoffs.

Another consideration is our province is projecting a $6.8-billion deficit. Total provincial expenses for 2020-21 are $56 billion, and of that, an incredible $2.5 billion is going toward servicing our total debt of $86 billion.

That’s close to 4.5 per cent of the province’s annual operating budget going toward interest payments – more than the combined expense of the two ministries of children services and seniors and housing.

The government has been clear it does not want to saddle future generations with structural deficits and ballooning interest payments.

In February, the UCP government put forward a proposal asking 24,000 government staff to take a one per cent wage cut, followed by a three-year wage freeze.

The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees claims the government is also seeking cuts to overtime and other premium pay provisions, and it is seeking a 2.5 per cent increase to wages to match inflation.

Now with the impacts of the rail blockades, the coronavirus and the collapse of energy prices taking a further toll on our economy, the Bank of Canada saw fit to cut its key rate by a further 50 points, signalling the light at the end of the tunnel may be a train.

In an economic downturn this severe and this prolonged, there are unfortunately very few people who have made it this far unscathed. There is no joy in seeing our fellow Albertans struggle to find employment, just as there is none in seeing cuts or reductions to the wages and benefits of our public servants.

As we work to get through this, it’s extraordinarily important to remember we are all in this together.

During the good times, wage growth in the public sector was closely linked with the growing prosperity in the private sector.

With no immediate relief for this situation within view, Albertans must support one another as our neighbours, our friends, and our families struggle with finding employment and reduced wages.

Reg Warkentin is policy and government affairs manager with the Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce.

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