MASS ED­U­CA­TION LAY­OFFS A TER­RI­BLE PRECE­DENT

UCP claims it’s ‘ob­sessed’ with job cre­ation but does some­thing sen­sa­tion­ally wrong

Calgary Herald - - CITY + REGION - DON BRAID Don Braid’s col­umn ap­pears reg­u­larly in the Herald dbraid@post­media.com Twit­ter: @Don­braid Face­book: Don Braid Pol­i­tics

Al­berta’s un­em­ploy­ment rate was 7.2 per cent in Fe­bru­ary.

It’s about to climb to lev­els un­known, be­cause of COVID-19 and crashed oil prices.

And now, your Al­berta gov­ern­ment is adding up to 20,000 lay­offs from K-12 ed­u­ca­tion un­til kids are back in the class­room.

This lat­est move by a gov­ern­ment in hy­per­drive is al­most be­yond be­lief.

How can politi­cians claim­ing to be “ob­sessed” with job cre­ation and re­ten­tion in­flict by far the big­gest sin­gle batch of lay­offs in Canada?

These peo­ple are ed­u­ca­tion as­sis­tants, driv­ers, sec­re­taries and other sup­port staff. The UCP thinks they’re loung­ing about use­lessly be­cause kids aren’t at­tend­ing schools.

By dump­ing them for as long as the cri­sis lasts, about $120 mil­lion will be freed up to help with the COVID-19 fight. So says

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Adri­ana Lagrange.

But many of these peo­ple are work­ing on the com­plex busi­ness of set­ting up home learn­ing, and ac­tu­ally de­liv­er­ing it.

One mom noted on so­cial me­dia that her kids have a to­tal of 17 cour­ses. There has to be teacher con­tact with par­ents and kids for ev­ery one.

Video and phone con­fer­enc­ing must be or­ga­nized. Par­ents re­port work­ing full days on this them­selves. Class­room as­sis­tants are deeply in­volved.

Provincewi­de home learn­ing is ar­guably a more com­plex task than just hav­ing those kids in front of the teacher in a class­room. It’s sim­ply false to im­ply that as­sis­tants and sup­port staff are be­ing paid for do­ing noth­ing.

More re­mark­ably still, Lagrange says the laid-off em­ploy­ees can get em­ploy­ment in­sur­ance. There’s even a gov­ern­ment ar­gu­ment that some sub­sti­tute teach­ers could ac­tu­ally make more money on fed­eral EI.

What it re­ally means, though, is that peo­ple who are now do­ing some­thing use­ful will be paid pub­lic money for gen­uinely do­ing noth­ing. It’s hard to imag­ine a longer leap from UCP ideology.

Mind you, de­flect­ing part of the wage bill to the fed­eral trea­sury might please many Al­ber­tans, con­sid­er­ing that the feds owe the prov­ince a good $2.6 bil­lion in fis­cal sta­bi­liza­tion pay­ments.

But this is a ter­ri­ble prece­dent. The gov­ern­ment is tak­ing money from one group of em­ploy­ees and ded­i­cat­ing it to a pub­lic health emer­gency for which they are in no way re­spon­si­ble, or even con­nected.

This is just a way to make the lay­offs more palat­able. But it raises the ques­tion — who’s next? Will nurses be laid off to fight a wild­fire? The thought is no less ab­surd.

And there’s this: The sud­denly un­em­ployed, as they ap­ply for

EI, could fur­ther clog a sys­tem al­ready full to burst­ing. That’s hardly fair to the many thou­sands who have lost pri­vate-sec­tor jobs.

The lay­offs were an­nounced Satur­day in a news re­lease with the min­is­ter nowhere in sight, as if it’s just a small thing, when in fact the num­bers are sim­ply stag­ger­ing.

Westjet shed 6,900 jobs, many through re­tire­ment and vol­un­tary pack­ages, and the UCP quite prop­erly lamented.

Then the gov­ern­ment sim­ply stops fund­ing 20,000 jobs, and that’s quite OK be­cause we’re fight­ing a virus here.

We cer­tainly are. No­body less than 100 years old has ever seen any­thing like it.

But this over­whelm­ing, pri­mal worry can pro­vide cover for gov­ern­ments to take stupid and du­bi­ous ac­tions.

The fed­eral Lib­er­als tried that with their ap­palling emer­gency spend­ing bill, which would have given the Justin Trudeau cabi­net dic­ta­to­rial power over taxes and spend­ing for nearly two years.

For­tu­nately, the op­po­si­tion slapped that down. But the

UCP has a dom­i­nat­ing ma­jor­ity and can do pretty much what it wants. In this case, it has done some­thing sen­sa­tion­ally wrong.

These lay­offs oddly echo what’s hap­pen­ing to physi­cians. Fam­ily docs re­port sharp rev­enue losses be­cause they’re see­ing fewer pa­tients, whether for ur­gent per­sonal vis­its or by phone and video con­sul­ta­tion.

Doc­tors pay rent and main­te­nance from their billings, their only source of rev­enue. A sharp de­cline puts pres­sure on prac­tice part­ners to lay off es­sen­tial sup­port work­ers who han­dle book­ings and ad­min­is­tra­tive chores.

Re­main­ing doc­tors then do more non-med­i­cal work. The prac­tice shrinks and be­comes a less-ef­fec­tive weapon against COVID -19.

The best so­lu­tion is di­rect sup­port for of­fice costs. But we’ve heard noth­ing of that.

In a time of cri­sis these prob­lems re­quire a firm but del­i­cate touch. The UCP is more in­clined to the sledge­ham­mer.

GREG SOUTHAM FILES

Ed­u­ca­tion Min­is­ter Adri­ana Lagrange was nowhere to be seen when lay­offs were an­nounced by news re­lease.

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