With much of the economy still shut down, how do employers pay laid-off work permit holders so they can survive and stay in the territory? Why can’t businesses that don’t require close contact among workers open now? What support can the government offer to help businesses survive?
A storm of tough questions from various workers — ranging from dentists to hairstylists to charter operators to restaurateurs — faced BVI Chamber of Commerce and Hotel Association board members last Thursday during a question-and-answer session hosted via Zoom.
Now, the CCHA is pushing for businesses’ interests to be represented in the government’s plan to reopen the economy while combating Covid-19.
In a press release outlining a letter the board sent to Premier Andrew Fahie, CCHA Executive Director Keiyia George explained that the board has supported the government’s “proactive response” to the pandemic in recent weeks, and its focus on public health and safety.
“As a business community, it is understood that this is a time of sacrifice by us as a society and we are committed to doing our part,” the board wrote.
However, the letter explained, “It is to the point where some [businesses] have temporarily closed or are contemplating closing in the coming weeks. Other businesses have reduced hours of operation, but the decrease in revenue is taking a toll.”
Even as the territory slowly emerges from a 21-day lockdown and some businesses have been permitted to reopen, the situation remains grave, according to the organisation. Some businesses, such as clothing retailers and restaurants, have been closed for nearly a month already and will likely not be able to reopen, except for takeout and delivery, for at least another two weeks.
That could mean laying off more staff or furloughing them, according to Ms. George.
“What it means for these businesses that were not able to open, not able to facilitate remote working or even to bring in any kind of revenue … that’s
three-plus months where they’re not generating any revenue,” Ms. George said in the Zoom session.
“[It] looks like they’re paying their staff, but they may not necessarily be
paying their bills.”
This is further complicated by work permit holders who may be deciding whether to stay or cut their losses and return to their home countries. For better or worse, Ms. George explained, such workers are currently the responsibility of their employers.
“Our temporary workers are stuck with us,” Ms. George said. “The borders are closed. They cannot leave. And at the end of the day, you’re ultimately responsible for those that you brought in.”
As employers and employees wait to see what remedies government will bring to the table, CCHA board member Frank Mahoney, owner of FAM Entertainment and BVI Sea and Land Adventures, said that so far, offerings are bare bones at best.
“Food, water, shelter and a true realisation of what we are dealing with as a small Caribbean island: During this time that’s the most we can possibly ask for,” Mr. Mahoney said during the Zoom session.
Dr. Jerry Smith, owner of Therapy Works, was frank about decisions businesses might have to make.
“You may want to look at repatriating those persons,” he said. “You may want to look if there is any chance of salvaging some part of the season: … figure out what percentage of the ones that you can use … and get the [rest] back to where they are from.”
The charter industry is among large employers still waiting for directions from government at a time when its employees haven’t been classified as essential.
Although there are no guests, as one questioner pointed out, boats aren’t like hotels where an owner can lock the door and walk away for a more extended
period: They need to be maintained constantly to avoid losing the investment.
“This is extremely frustrating as we could at least offer them a couple days of work or pay each week,” the questioner wrote. “And it is very easy to follow social distancing guidelines.”
Ms. George explained that working through the Charter Yacht Society, the board has broached those concerns with government.
She added, “Social distancing could be adhered to; protocols could be adhered to. … There could be some employment that was still being had if they were to
look at how that was part of the industry and consider certainly a portion of employees being permitted to go into the boatyards.”
In its letter, the board called the next 90 days a “critical period.”
“Interventions are needed to mitigate against temporary business closures, increased unemployment, the potential for an economic recession, and to keep money circulating in the local economy for as long as possible,”
the board wrote.
So far, members added, the heaviest impact on the shutdown has been on the hospitality industry.
“I think what small businesses and certain businesses must recognise is that tourism in the British Virgin Islands has pretty much come to a halt,” said Mr.
Mahoney, whose business producing large concerts and events also cannot operate in the era of social distancing. “It is a known fact that at least for the next three months ships will not be coming to the BVI. We know now that our borders are closed, and we’re strongly suggesting that small businesses as well as individuals make long-term plans.”
Added Ms. George, “Tourism touches more businesses than we like to think. It’s not just restaurants, it’s not just the hotels, it’s not just the taxi industry. It’s also our retail industry as a whole.”
As the territory waits to learn the contents of the economic stimulus package the premier said on Monday had been submitted to Cabinet, Ms. George said the board is recommending several courses of action to help businesses.
These include government settling outstanding payments to small businesses; a disaster fund for small business loans; deferment of utility bills for employers and employees for the next 90 days; and offering more government services online.
A potential game-changer, and one some elected officials have already called for, would be the introduction of unemployment benefits through the Social Security Board.
“This isn’t anything new [but] what has been recommended and what we are waiting to see is if they’re going to do a temporary change of the legislation that requires the Social Security Board to actually allow those benefits to
happen,” Ms. George said.
SSB Director Antoinette Skelton said in an interview last month that there currently exists no provision in the law for unemployment benefits to be paid
through the SSB.
In the long-term, the chamber noted, it would be looking into how business interruption insurance can be more cost-effective.
And since tourism will take time to revive, there will be a need to pursue flexibility and diversification of the economy beyond the pandemic, according to the press release.
After all, hurricane season is only a month away.
“It is no longer acceptable for the vulnerabilities in our economy to be tolerated, and other industries need to be developed to reduce the vulnerability and for economic growth,” CCHA Chairwoman Shaina Smith said in the press release.
Added Mr. Mahoney, “It’s not just the BVI. We belong to a global village that to a certain extent [is] on fire right now. And we have to come up with some of our own ideas, plans and solutions as to how we are going to survive.”