About 40 percent of Anegada’s workforce became unemployed during the pandemic, Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said on April 20 in the House of Assembly. (File screenshot: YOUTUBE)

In the latest update on how the pandemic has affected unemployment in the Virgin Islands, government said more than 14 percent of employees at businesses reporting to the Department of Labour and Workforce Development had been terminated.

Work-permit holders made up the majority of people reported unemployed during the pandemic, Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley said April 20 in the House of Assembly in response to questions from Opposition Leader Marlon Penn.

During a June 2020 update, Mr. Wheatley had said that self-reported data from 77 businesses showed at least 767 people had been “laid off ” between then and the beginning of the pandemic — apparently on the temporary basis allowed under the government’s interpretation of the 2010 Labour Code — and 165 were terminated.

Now with 1,442 businesses reporting — representing about 53 percent of businesses operating in the territory — the stats show 1,719 employees were “released or severed” between March 2020 and the end of February 2021, Mr. Wheatley said, though he did not explain the difference between the two terms. This amounts to 14.4 percent of the employees working at reporting businesses, according to the minister. He said a total 12,188 people were represented — 58 percent of the whole workforce in the VI.

Of the 1,719 terminated employees, 861 were work-permit holders, 439 were belongers, 182 were unspecified, 156 held work-permit exemptions, 74 were Virgin Islanders, and seven had resident status, according to the minister.

Some sister islands were affected dramatically.

Mr. Wheatley said 40.2 percent of the workforce on Anegada was released, compared to 10.3 percent on Virgin Gorda and 13 percent on Tortola. He did not include Jost Van Dyke in his summary.

As for district-specific outreach, Mr. Wheatley said there is no formal government programme.

Voluntary reporting

Mr. Wheatley explained that the statistics he provided did not come directly from the Department of Labour and Workforce Development but rather from voluntary reporting.

The minister said it is not possible to isolate workforce assessment data with the current record-keeping system.

However, he said the department is manually tracking data about employment changes and will publicise a report soon.

He also noted that information about new employment of belongers and Virgin Islanders is likely underreported considering they don’t have to submit work permit applications for a change of employer.

“Businesses often do not report these types of hires to the department, which results in our inability to regularly correlate and present this type of data,” he said.

He anticipated better data would be available following proposed reforms within the department, and he added that he hopes reporting will become mandatory in the future.

“We can’t be flying blind at a time like now,” the minister said.

Layoffs

The House elected on several occasions to extend the time allowed for temporary layoffs, meaning employees wouldn’t be officially laid off and businesses didn’t need to pay severance. The buck stopped last month, when Mr. Wheatley announced that employers would have three months from March 1 to make the payments after some workers were furloughed for nearly a year.

Employers unable to honour their full obligations to employees because of financial stress caused during the pandemic would have to work out a mutually agreed payment plan through the department.


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