Going into May, and the second month of COVID-19 pandemic changes, officials at one of the region's largest employees — Lac La Biche County, with just over 200 on the payroll — have issued around 40 layoff notices, mainly to casual employees, and switched a quarter of their office workforce to work from home status. County officials say that three employees are currently self-isolating, and since the pandemic precautions began, there have been 66 staff who have self-isolated.
Some employees, especially those in public works and equipment maintenance have been on week-on, week-off shifts to avoid close contact. But as the summer season rolls on, county officials say they are looking at ways to work within the health and safety protocols of the Coronavirus pandemic while still being able to operate at optimum service levels.
"As we get to summer, there's going to be more equipment to be worked on," said county CAO Ken Van Buul, adding that service level expectations in the coming weeks will be an "essential part" of every department's management team.
One of those service level areas, according to Lac La Biche County councillor Lorin Tkachuk is community cleanliness.
"We're probably not going to have as many visitors because of the pandemic this year, but we need to put priority on keeping the community clean," he said, explaining that staff who are still on the payroll, but who are seeing less productivity due to less business activity could be 're-purposed" to help with the cleanup. "Staff member 'A' could be on a broom or a wheelbarrow, or picking things up."
Van Buul said if that were to happen — and it has been discussed at senior management levels — the staff would not see changes to salary or benefits for taking on a different job.
"If you are being asked to do job ‘Y’ we are keeping your pay the same,” he said.
More skilled jobs, like equipment operation would likely not be included in any re-purposing plans, as training and liability issues would come into play.
For some of those jobs that may be required, however, Lac La Biche County councillor Sterling Johnson says there’s a big, available workforce outside the municipal offices as well.
“We have talked about an hourly work program so everyone out there has a chance to work in the county,” he said. “A local hiring program would help to keep many of our locals going. We have to support them.”
Opportunities for some seasonal summer work will be available to residents in the coming weeks, said Van Buul.
“In Public Works, we are looking for 39 people, and we don’t have 39 people to re-purpose, so we will be hiring in order to keep our service levels up,” he said, adding that the balance between staff job security and financial accountability is something senior managers are taking very seriously. “I have empathy for any staff member being laid off, and I want to answer to both the public and council that we are not keeping staff at work who are not doing anything.”
In fact, said the CAO, as the days go by in the ‘new normal’ created by the COVID-19 pandemic, there could be some very difficult decisions still to make.
“There likely are tough decisions still coming,” he said.