Staffing levels spark concerns about snow clearing on Manitoba highways

Staffing vacancies in Manitoba’s highway maintenance department have sparked concerns about snow clearing this upcoming winter.

More than a third of all positions were vacant as of last spring.

That has some wondering if the province can keep up given concerns about road conditions stemming from last winter.

“I think it was too late,” said Cheryl Surgenor, who commutes between Warren and Winnipeg to get to work. “Always too late. Everybody was already at work or had to be at work before the snowplows started.”

Numbers obtained by the Opposition NDP through a Freedom of Information request shared with CTV News Winnipeg show Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure (MTI) was dealing with numerous vacancies in highway maintenance.

Of 512 positions across the province 326 were filled, and 186 were vacant as of the end of March 2022, a 36 per cent vacancy rate.

In the northern region, only 142 of 269 highway maintenance positions were filled and 127 were vacant, a 47 per cent vacancy rate.

“Well I certainly hope that it isn’t the government’s intention, rather than employing enough people to keep the roads in a safe condition to just shut them down for extended periods,” said Tom Lindsey, an NDP MLA for Flin Flon.

Lindsey’s not the only one concerned about highway closures.

Winnipeg city councillor and newly-appointed public works committee chairperson Janice Lukes raised concerns with the province about safety and the number of times the Perimeter Highway was shut down last winter.

“It’s basically, it’s to have equipment out there, it’s to have it out frequently and it’s to have maintenance crews that can fix the equipment when it’s down,” Lukes said.

A provincial spokesperson said in an email Manitoba Transportation and Infrastructure is actively recruiting maintenance staff throughout the province to ensure basic levels of service are met this winter.

It’s also hiring as many as 40 casual retired maintenance staff to support winter operations, will place maintenance staff on standby during weekends and holidays to ensure a timely response to snow clearing and will continue to work with private contractors to help clear roads after larger snowfalls.

“I know there’s a labour shortage right now and everybody’s struggling but I think it’s very, very important to get people to work,” Surgenor said.

Drivers are just hoping this winter, isn’t anything like the last one.

“It’s just the beginning now but probably later on they’re going to need more equipment,” said Henrietta Piche.

The province said although the Vehicle Equipment Maintenance Agency MTI leases heavy equipment from recently reduced its fleet to remove older less efficient equipment, there remains a fleet of 350 vehicles for snow clearing, de-icing and grading.

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