'Make a deal' on temporary lay-off end before too late

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Peter Goudie

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Employers, trade unions and the Government are being urged to "make some kind of deal" to avoid the pitfalls and uncertainty that could occur when the temporary lay-off period finishes at month's end.

Peter Goudie, the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce and Employers Confederation's (BCCEC) labour specialist, told Tribune Business that reaching some agreement on the way forward was becoming more urgent by the day with time running out and several major hotels confirming they will not re-open in October.

"That's an interesting question," Mr Goudie replied when this newspaper raised the impending temporary furlough's close at end-September. "What my concern is, if you let this go without making a deal with some of the major employers, the likes of Atlantis and Baha Mar, where are you going to go from here with redundancies?

"I don't know. I really don't know. I can't see them [the employers] affording to make everybody redundant, but I can't see where we're going with this. It seems to me we should be making some type of negotiated agreement. You maybe have to make some kind of deal between the Government and large employers as to what we're going to do."

Mr Goudie also raised the prospect of including those industries that remain shut as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as bars, cinemas and nightclubs, in any such arrangement. "This is really a difficult situation," he added. "Personally, I don't know what the answer is, but the Government, employers and the unions - where necessary - need to sit down and talk about what the future is going to be."

Reforms to the Employment Act in 2017 mandate that once workers have been sent home for a 13-week, 90-day period, an employer either has to recall them or terminate them with full compensation as required by law.

However, the unprecedented scale of temporary lay-offs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Government to extend this so-called "grace period" twice, the last one taking the timeline to end-September, in a bid to slow additions to a national unemployment rate thought to be approaching at least 40 percent.

Yet K Peter Turnquest, deputy prime minister, has indicated that the Government has yet to take a decision on whether to extend the individual and business assistance initiatives launched to lessen COVID-19's worst effects beyond end-September 2020 as funding has only been budgeted up to this point.

The Government has already financed a 13-week extension to the National Insurance Board's (NIB) unemployment benefit, taking such welfare to 26 weeks in total or six months (half a year). Mr Turnquest last week voiced hope that the recommended October 15 tourism re-opening will reduce the social security lines, but Baha Mar and Sandals Royal Bahamian promptly said they were delaying their returns beyond that month.

Should there be no further extension of the temporary lay-off period, employers will be mandated to pay workers they do not bring back their full severance pay as mandated by the Employment Act. Yet weeks and months of COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions, with no revenue coming in, will likely leave many companies struggling to afford this.

And many workers may not want to accept severance packages given the difficulty in finding new jobs amid the depressed COVID-19 economy. "Nobody has a guarantee on how long this thing is going to go on. No one can tell me when this is going to end," Mr Goudie added. "Until the big hotels and cruise ships come back, a lot of the retail shops can't open.

"Who's going to have all the money to pay these employees out? I think the Government needs to sit down with the employers and unions and work something out. All of them need to sit down and talk."