Statement By Ministers – Senator Wendy Colleen Phipps (August 13, 2020)
Impact of COVID-19 on the Local Labour Market, the Hospitality Sector & Severance Claims
Mr Speaker: As Minister with responsibility for Labour I rise with your leave to make a brief statement about the Impact of Covid-19 on our local labour market. I also wish, in the short time I have to pay particular attention to the impact of the pandemic on the hotel and allied services sector, which is a major economic driver for our Country. Over the course of the past several weeks I would have updated the Cabinet on these developments and now feel, in the interest of transparency, that it is useful to share this information with our citizens and residents.
As the general public is aware, our borders were closed as of March 25, 2020 when our first two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed, having been imported into the country by two nationals who had recently returned from New York. In the interest of saving lives and controlling the spread of the virus in our local community, our Government was forced to take more drastic action in terms of declaration of the State of Emergency under which we are still operating. Regulations have since been in place with regards to movement of people, as well as the wearing of masks. Public health and safety messaging is also continuously been disseminated and advocated for in terms of social and physical distancing, hand hygiene, and the wearing of masks which is now mandatory.
As could have been expected, the closure of our borders would have had the effect of bringing our hotel and allied services sector to a grinding halt. This was unavoidable.
By the end of March 2020, a number of hoteliers would have laid off staff. These facilities include the St. Kitts Marriott Resort, Royal St. Kitts Hotel, and Park Hyatt. In keeping with the provisions of The Protection of Employment Act (2014) all such staff that are still laid off are now eligible for severance pay since they would have been without work for more than 12 weeks. As of today, August 13, 2020, almost 800 claims for severance have been made. Some 309 claims have been made staff of the St. Kitts Marriott. A total of 112 workers would have been laid off by Park Hyatt and just under 90 workers of Royal St. Kitts Hotel would have also been laid off. A number of other severance applications have been made by other private sector entities, including the manufacturing sector which, thankfully, has brought back some 75% of their workers into active employment.
Mr Speaker: In addition to the claims being made for severance, some 21 claims for Long Service Gratuity were also filed as of August 11, 2020. As the public may be aware, this gratuity benefit would have been put in place in 2014, and its eligible beneficiaries are workers in manufacturing and hotel sectors. I should also note at this juncture that much of this data would have also been presented at the Prime Minister’s monthly press conference held on Tuesday, August 11, 2020. However, their repetition may be useful to persons who were not tuned into the programme or have not listened to the rebroadcast.
Mr Speaker: Over the past several weeks the Government would have been engaged in a number of consultations with displaced workers in the hotel sector. Thus far, the Department of Labour would have had three such consultations. They are as follows:
- St. Kitts Marriott Resort – at the request of the Department of Labour, the management of Marriott facilitated two meetings with their staff on July 14, 2020. This meeting was intended to allow Marriott workers to air their concerns and have their questions answered as the hotel had not been informal communication with the workers since they were issued lay-off letters around March 23, 2020.
- Royal St. Kitts Hotel – This meeting was also held on July 14, 2020 and was the result of an invitation by the hotel’s management team, to the Prime Minister and the Minister of Labour.
- Four Seasons Resort – This meeting was held on Wednesday, August 12, 2020 and was the direct result of a written invitation that was sent to the Honourable Prime Minister and the Minister of Labour by Mrs. Yvette Thomas-Henry, Regional Vice President and General Manager, on July 22, 2020. This meeting was originally scheduled for Wednesday, July 29, 2020 but was canceled as a result of the pending inclement weather that was predicted with the arrival of Tropical Storm Isaias. That invitation was specifically requested by the management of Four Seasons Resort to address the lay-off of some 400 staff members, who had already been duly notified of this development which became effective August 1, 2020. The meeting was also meant as an opportunity for the staff to ask questions about their lay-off and the status of their return to work. As a result, the Labour Commissioner was in attendance to directly address inquiries regarding the legislative provisions insofar as employment, and the rights and obligations of both employers and employees are concerned.
All of these meetings were successfully held and would have left the workers at these hotel plants better informed about their employment, the impact of COVID-19 on their work status, etc.
Mr. Speaker: Before I close I should also indicate that a meeting was held just yesterday with the National Tripartite Committee on International Labour Standards. This would have been the first meeting I have chaired since assuming the portfolio for Labour. The meeting was convened to specifically address the following pertinent issues, namely:
- The Status of the Severance Payment Fund
- An actuarial review that has recently been commissioned on the Severance Payment Fund, given the urgent need for its amendment and re-structuring
- The introduction of an Unemployment Fund to be managed by Social Security – for persons who have lost their jobs and would need financial support while they actively seek out new employment opportunities.
- The Status of the Draft Labour Code – which has been a rather long-term project that has spanned two administrations now.
Another meeting of the National Tripartite Committee is being planned for the next two weeks, in order for the Committee to further deliberate on these issues within the context of Covid-19. A presentation to Cabinet would follow shortly thereafter with a schedule for when these matters would become the subject of public consultation, followed by legislative debate and passage.
In closing, I would like to make one additional announcement. This is to notify the public that as of Monday, August 18, 2020, the Department of Labour would be relocated to the 2nd floor of Neville’s Eatery on Camps Main Road. The Department currently occupies space on Victoria Road, in a building owned by Amory Enterprises. This space has been deemed unsuitable by the Covid-19 Task Force, given that some 29 members of staff are cramped into a space of approximately 1200 square feet. This runs counter to the protocols required for social and physical distancing. There is also a public health concern that must be corrected: the space has only one lavatory that serves the 29 staff members, which is unacceptable.
These announcements bring to an end my Statement by Minister. May it please you, Mr Speaker.