- Written by CONOR KING DEVITT
- Published: 13 October 2017
Before Hurricane Irma obliterated his Cane Garden Bay workplace, Augustine Fontaine spent most afternoons flipping burgers, cooking fish and frying chicken for beachgoing tourists and residents alike.
The chef at Rhymer’s Beach Hotel, Mr. Fontaine is now more likely to be seen with a wheelbarrow than a spatula as employees work to rebuild the now-shredded restaurant facility.
Though he remains at the hotel, which is also his home, he is unsure when he’ll get to cook again and what his job will look like going forward.
“You don’t have the comfort like you did before,” Mr. Fontaine said, lamenting the mosquito-swarmed living conditions and his workplace uncertainty.
He is not alone.
With the private sector still reeling from the damage wrought by Hurricane Irma, career apprehension, opportunity losses and layoffs across different industries continue to affect the day-to-day lives of many Virgin Islands residents.
Perhaps the most obviously affected employees work in Mr. Fontaine’s industry: Widespread destruction and uncertain tourism prospects have sent shockwaves through the territory’s hospitality businesses.
Charter operators must contend with heavily damaged fleets. Taxi drivers are facing the prospect of altered cruise ship itineraries. Bartenders and servers work at restaurants feeding a smaller population.
Down the beach from Mr. Fontaine’s workplace, Myett’s Restaurant and Hotel also suffered catastrophic damage and was forced to lay off employees across the board.
Val Rhymer, who co-owns the business with her husband Kareem, set up a GoFundMe account for her employees in need and purchased a load of relief supplies, though their delivery was delayed due to the chaos Hurricane Maria caused in the region.
“We will build Myett’s in CGB and will be back again,” she wrote in a message to the Beacon. “It'll take some time but we will be back. And we will rehire the staff that helped us to make it as successful as it was a month ago if we can.”
For some in hospitality, the storms pushed back the return of an already-lost job.
On Tortola, the Turtle Bay Resort in Lambert was nearing its scheduled reopening date of November 2017. With that was supposed to come about 40 new jobs for residents and a few internships for students. The storm delayed those plans, however.
“Although Wyndham Turtle Bay Resort was so close to [finishing] its renovation, the resort was severely damaged and it’s with great sadness that we communicate that therefore [it] will not re-open this November,” the resort stated on its website.
The company did not provide a timeline for reopening.
On Virgin Gorda, Rosewood Little Dix Bay was scheduled to be nearing the end of an 18-month renovation period that saw about 300 people laid off in May 2016.
Hurricane damage forced the resort to delay its reopening — previously scheduled for December — to a yet-to-be-announced date, postponing the return of jobs to the island.
It’s not just hospitality employees dealing with uncertainty. Harneys BVI — which employed more than 180 people before Irma — had to lay off 18 people, including three lawyers.
“In accordance with local law, the redundancies have been made on a temporary basis and the firm has expressed the sincere hope that as the BVI recovers and Harneys is able re-open more office space, some of those affected employees will be recalled to resume their duties without loss of continuity or seniority,” the law firm wrote in a Sept. 29 press release.
Three days earlier, CCT announced employee layoffs.
“Unfortunately, due to the devastation caused by both hurricanes, CCT must temporarily reorganise our workforce to facilitate the rebuilding of the organisation,” the company wrote in a press release. “The reorganisation of the workforce, although painful, is a necessary part of CCT’s survival.”
BVI Cable TV, which merged with CCT in June, released a nearly identical statement the previous day.
Some major companies did seem to fare better with regards to employee retention.
Rite Way — one of the largest employers in the territory with about 500 employees on its payroll — has only let six people go, according to Guy Strickland, the managing director of Rite Way and Road Town Wholesale.
Still, it was not entirely clear if this would be the entirety of Rite Way’s layoffs going forward.
“We will be making a press release in the near future after we discuss with employees,” Mr. Strickland wrote after being asked about layoffs.
In an interview with the Beacon last week, Premier Dr. Orlando Smith was asked whether government has a concrete plan to deal with the issue of joblessness.
“That’s a discussion that’s ongoing,” Dr. Smith (R-at large) replied, without divulging further details.
On Monday night, the Labour Department issued a pair of announcements providing further insight into government’s plan for the future.
One was a request for business owners and employers to provide the department with information regarding the status of their business as well as the status of their employees, in order for Labour to assess the workforce needs of the VI.
The other outlined the registration process for Labour’s new job programme, which began last Saturday and will continue this weekend (see sidebar).
The point of the new programme will be to provide people with job opportunities and help rebuild the territory, according to Labour Commissioner Janice Rymer.