As more residents are laid off by businesses tightening their belts until the yet-to-be-declared date when Virgin Islands borders fully reopen, the government is taking measures that leaders say are designed to protect employees and employers alike.
But not everyone is convinced those steps will achieve that goal.
The House of Assembly last Thursday 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 and has not yet been Gazetted, 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, said Natural Resources, Labour and Immigration Minister Vincent Wheatley.
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 bill would more than double that time period, opposition member Mark Vanterpool (R-D4) expressed concern that October is still 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.”
He described a potential situation where a business is unable to pay a long-time staff member right now without tourism driving the internal economy but is reluctant to see a knowledgeable employee go — especially to a larger competitor.
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.
But fellow opposition member Julian Fraser (R-D3) pointed out that workers can’t survive on nothing, uncertain if they will be rehired or terminated this autumn.
“Who is this bill really benefitting?” Mr. Fraser asked. “If you are supposed to pay an individual severance after three months, and you’re extending it to six months, it has to be benefitting the employer. What is an individual going to do being unemployed for six months? He’s going to look for a job. And if he finds a job on the fourth month, it means that he doesn’t get severance pay, does it?”
Mr. Fraser said the Department of Labour and Workforce Development should make clear that employers should pay severance to employees after the six months, even if they do find another job while laid off.
Mr. Wheatley later told the Beacon that legislators had tweaked the bill in a closed-door committee session before passing it.
The committee’s amendments softened the termination deadline, he said, because “we’re in a very uncertain time, and we don’t know if October will be an appropriate time to end.”
Legislators also agreed during the committee session to allow the temporary work provision.
“You can work during the layoff period without losing your severance,” Mr. Wheatley confirmed.
The minister added that he would be working closely with the Department of Labour and Workforce Development in implementing the changes once Governor Gus Jaspert assents to the bill, at which point it will be Gazetted and made public.
Mr. Wheatley said he has been hearing calls for more comprehensive unemployment legislation, which he said has been drafted and will be coming to the House soon.
“We cannot continue to pay lip service to these things,” he said. “At some point in time we have to just say we’re going to do this, and I think that time is now.”