The BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association is making recommendations to government about ways to help businesses deal with layoffs, closures and revenue shortfalls. (File photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

The workforce furlough extension passed in the House of Assembly in June expired on Saturday, and now the BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association is demanding what it called “urgent communication” from the Ministry of Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration regarding passing an extension to it.

“If this deadline is not extended, requiring severance payments will likely bankrupt many businesses,” the chamber wrote in a Friday press release.

“Further, it will become unduly costly to restart the hiring process. With no announcement from government at this time, the chamber now respectfully urges that the date be extended to [Nov. 30] in the first instance.”

The chamber said it continued to “persist and advocate for a full economic recovery plan from the government that en- compasses comprehensive details of what residents, businesses, and visitors alike should expect Dec. 1, when the planned reopening of the borders to tourists will occur.

NRLI Minister Vincent Wheatley did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Furlough extensions

In June, the HOA passed the Labour Code Amendment Act, 2020, allowing for more flexibility in how long businesses can temporarily retain laid-off staff before providing severance pay.

The bill, which was rushed through the House in one day, set a retroactive seven-month period for temporary layoffs beginning when cruise ships were
barred from the territory on March 14 and ending Oct. 31.

According to the government’s interpretation of the current Labour Code, which took effect in 2010, businesses can retain “temporarily” laid-off staff members for no more than three months before reemploying them or terminating them and paying severance.

Though the June act more than doubled that time period, opposition member Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) at the time expressed concern that October was too soon.

“I believe the intention is a very good one,” said Mr. Vanterpool, a businessman who owns One Mart. “However, I am not sure if you’re helping employees and employers, or if we might be putting ourselves in a bind that could negatively affect both sides.”

Mr. Vanterpool said forcing employers to pay severance while already struggling to pay other bills would only compound the VI’s economic issues, especially in sectors such as hospitality.

Chamber actions

Since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis, the chamber has been vocal in advocating for businesses to have more say in the reopening process, though it has claimed that government has often ignored these offers. Last month, a task force from the chamber released a comprehensive set of guidelines it had proposed to government, in an effort to help business owners plan for Dec. 1. The “BVI HI 5 Assurance Programme Guidelines,” members said, were previously presented to the BVI Tourist Board but subsequently rejected by the government.

And in August, the chamber announced that it had sent the government five letters since March with situation reports and recommendations for mitigating the economic fallout of the crisis, but had received no response as of that time.

Since then, government introduced a series of “industry stakeholder” meetings intended to engage the private sector in the reopening process.

On Friday, the government also announced the establishment of an ad hoc Economic Advisory Council to the Premier, which is chaired by John Cline, the founder and CEO of Infinite Solutions and a pastor at New Life Baptist Church in Duffs Bottom.