The sudden shutdown of the tourism industry and other businesses in the Virgin Islands due to the coronavirus pandemic — coupled with global economic concerns — is leaving employees with uncertainty, and some without jobs.
The first two cases of the virus were confirmed in the territory Wednesday afternoon. In response to the pandemic, the government is considering plans that would extend the three-month period that employers can “temporarily” lay off workers without severance pay, while also urging businesses to abide by the law and treat their employees with compassion, according to Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley.
On March 19, Mr. Wheatley announced plans to work with residents to handle issues with their work permits where possible. In particular, the ministry is reconsidering section 107 of the Labour Code 2010, which Mr. Wheatley said stipulates that employers can temporarily lay off employees for up to three months.
“After that period, an employer either has to return the employee to work or terminate the employee and give a severance package,” Mr. Wheatley explained.
Now, he added, government is reconsidering that time limit on layoffs.
“The Department of Labour and Workforce Development is working on an extension of this period for particular industries affected by COVID-19 on a case-by-case basis to secure jobs for the people of the Virgin Islands,” he said.
He added that special provisions are also in the works to protect vulnerable community members, including employees who are 60 or older. However, he did not provide details on the specifics of those provisions.
Regarding work-permit holders, Mr. Wheatley said the Department of Immigration is working on a case-by-case basis to explore what options are available for them to remain in the territory until they can return to work.
“The department is also granting access into the territory for specialised services critical to COVID-19,” Mr. Wheatley said.
Paul Bridgewater, a government information officer, said Monday that government is working collaboratively on the issue.
“As of right now, the decisions are in the hands of the [attorney general],” Mr. Bridgewater said of the work permit extensions. “The AG has a Cabinet paper, and once that’s approved, then action will be taken on that. Right now, nothing has been done, but it is on the way.”
Regarding laid-off work permit holders who might not be able to return to their home countries due to travel restrictions, Mr. Bridgewater said he believes they will have some time to see how the situation unfolds rather than being compelled to leave immediately. How much time is unclear, however.
“I don’t know that they would have to go home immediately because they have been laid off,” he said. “Right now, the employers have the power to lay off people for three months before they have to give severance packages. If they are laid off after that period, then a severance package will have to be given, but that’s also on the way with the Cabinet papers, to extend that period. So they might not have to go home.”
The minister also addressed concerns about childcare in the midst of territory-wide closures of private and public schools, day-care centres and extracurricular activities, effective at least through next week, after which they will have their Easter break until April 20.
“It is recognised that there are parents who are also workers who are faced with the question of what to do with respect to the children who will be out of schools,” Mr. Wheatley said. “And there are employers who will be faced with requests from employees to bring their children to work or stay at home.”
Among the listed guidelines for addressing childcare, the minister advised that children not be allowed into workplaces or company vehicles.
“Employers are encouraged to implement remote work policies where possible to minimise the need for employees with children to physically attend work,” he said, adding that employees should not be disciplined or lose pay for staying at home with their children when no other options are available.
Where physical attendance is required, the minister is asking employers to consider offering shift work, staggered hours and rostering, or assigning specific lists of tasks to different employees.
Mr. Wheatley also urged employees who cannot find a suitable resolution to email the department at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 468-4707 or 468-4708.
“Employers are encouraged to develop appropriate arrangements to ensure business continuity during this pandemic,” Mr. Wheatley said. “It is their legal duty to stay in accordance with the proper health and safety measures at the workplace.”