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Keeping the Lights On: Jackman-Atkinson

December 10, 2016 8:06 AM | Columns

By Kate Jackman-Atkinson, myWestman

Power Lines - Hydro

NEEPAWA, Man. — Skyrocketing expenses have put Manitoba Hydro in the headlines again, but this time, it isn’t related to multi-billion dollar infrastructure projects. The crown corporation was in the news this week with the release of its 2015 payroll.

The highlight wasn’t so much that the company spent close to half a billion dollars paying staff last year, but how that money was divided among the corporation’s 6,410 employees. Including base pay, overtime and benefits, 2,251 employees earned more than $100,000 and 52 employees earned more than $200,000. While most base salaries appear in line with comparable private sector jobs, the big driver for large compensation packages was overtime. An analysis done by CBC News found 90 employees who saw their salaries more than double because of overtime payments. When they included other perks and northern allowance payments, 133 employees saw their pay increase by more than double their base salaries.

Hydro is one of those tough companies to criticize. Like health care workers or police officers, we want them there doing their jobs when we need them. When winter storms knock out power lines, we want them working overtime to return service or prevent outages. They do a good job and unlike those in other provinces, we seldom find ourselves without power. But not all of those high earners are working in the cold to keep the lights on.

Scott Powell, Manitoba Hydro’s manager of public affairs, was quoted by the CBC saying that for staff working on big projects, such as the Keeyask dam or restoring service after a big storm, overtime costs can rise quickly. He added that they balance overtime costs against the costs of hiring and training new, short-term employees, which can cost more than paying out $100,000 in overtime.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the union that represents close to 3,000 Manitoba Hydro employees, argues that the large payouts are needed to offset working conditions. Mike Velie, union spokesperson and business manager, said to the CBC that work takes place in harsh environments and requires long separations from family. He added that sometimes, Hydro faces competition for employees, who are lured out of province by even higher wages. He said that salaries and overtime often are in line with what workers can make elsewhere.

We understand that going out to restore power in the middle of a snowstorm is worth something. We understand that working long shifts in remote communities far from home is worth something, but there are some aspects of the company’s compensation that are a little harder to swallow. For example, more than $1.3 million was paid out in a “downtown” allowance to the 1,600 workers in the company’s downtown head office. The $840 a year is paid to offset some of the additional costs of working downtown. It’s hard to see just what kind of hardships these employees face beyond those experienced by every other person working downtown.

The company is facing financial concerns that will force it to take a serious look at all of its cost, including compensation. The crown corporation currently has a debt of about $13 billion and as projects such as BiPole III move ahead, that debt is expected to climb to $25 billion within the next five years. Once complete, these projects can open doors to export contracts, but those within and outside the corporation have expressed worry over the cost of servicing that rising debt. In October, Hydro board members and executives said at an open house that tough decisions, such as a hiring freeze and rate increases, would have to be made to improve the company’s financials.

We need and want reliable power, but that doesn’t mean that the company’s pay structure, both base pay levels and overtime needs, is beyond question.