Top Feature Photos Courtesy of TNN

Minister of Labour, Jason Hayward has conceded that Bermuda’s Employment Act introduced 20 years ago is “silent” on matters pertaining to job layoffs, redundancies and timeframe requirements to bring workers back to work during layoffs.

Speaking at the joint news conference with Finance Minister Curtis Dickinson on Monday (October 19) on the economic impact of the global pandemic on the island’s workforce and tourism industry, he said his Ministry has received a ton of queries.

He was responding to questions fielded by TNN on complaints cited by Bermudian hospitality and restaurant workers, who said their employers were calling non-Bermudian work permit holders back to work, while leaving them out of work on layoffs.

The Employment Act, enacted in the year 2000, “outlines the minimum standards of employment for individuals, including both Bermudian and non-Bermudians working in Bermuda”.

TNN asked the Minister to specify the procedure after checking an undisclosed establishment that had several work permit holders working, with only one Bermudian back on the job, while other local workers were still laid off.

Ultimately, the Minister said: “The Employment Act is silent on these matters and employers were using that to their advantage.

“The Ministry will work to find a legislative solution,” moving forward he added.

But in the interim, he said: “The onus is on the employer to make every effort to bring workers back.”

“Employees have questioned being returned to work for short periods of time, working at reduced hours/pay, and whether there is a time period in which employers are required to return them to their substantive positions,” said Mr Hayward.

“In addition to guest workers being recalled back to work while Bermudians remain unemployed in like occupational categories.

“Unfortunately, the Employment Act is silent on these matters, and some employers are using this to their advantage as they are allowed to recall workers for a short period and restart the layoff periods.

“This is a disadvantage to employees as they are unable to plan ahead or sustain themselves when their employment status and hours are uncertain. If alternative employment is sought by employees it results in them forfeiting their right to severance pay.

“The Ministry of Labour will work to find a legislative solution to better protect employees and encourage employers to ensure that every effort is made to return laid-off Bermudians back to the workforce in an equitable manner.”

He stressed that “the onus is on the Employer to make every effort to contact their employee to recall them to work and these efforts should be documented. The Employer should also advise of a reasonable time for the employee to return to work.

“If an employee refuses to return to work, they forfeit their right to severance pay and notice pay. If an employee does not return within the timeframe specified without reasonable cause or notice, they forfeit their right to severance pay and notice pay.

“If an employer is facing financial constraints that may affect recall and hours of work, this should be communicated to the employee and a timeframe specified regarding the period alternative measures may be put in place,” he added.

“Due to the current financial constraints on some employers, employees should consider reasonable recall packages that may include reduced hours.”

He also urged employers and employees with questions or concerns to contact the Labour Relations Section on 297-7714 or  297-7716, or come in to the office on the fourth floor of the Dame Lois Brown-Evans Building on Court Street in Hamilton.

But he was not able to say just how many people are unemployed in Bermuda. He did say however, that a moratorium on more work permit categories will be announced “in the coming weeks”.

He did say the “sharp declines in economic activity” resulted in “unemployment” in all sectors but they were “most noticeable in Bermuda’s hospitality sector”, with “redundancies and significant decreases in working hours”.

That was another complaint cited by TNN after a number of Bermudians complained that their hours were being reduced far more than their non-Bermudian counterparts.

While noting that “the global and local economic and social outlook remains daunting”, Mr Hayward said: “The healthcare crisis caused by the Coronavirus Pandemic has resulted in sharp declines in economic activity.

“There is no question that the immediate future will be exceptionally difficult. We should anticipate further disruptions to our labour market during our long road to recovery.”

And “the road ahead will be tough” he added.

Of the 1,202 applications picked up for Financial Assistance (FA) and Supplemental Unemployment Benefits (SUB) only 338 applications were submitted. That resulted in only 76 applications approved for FA – 73 were approved for SUB.

The most frequent reasons for processing delays included incomplete applications, refusal to provide household information and applicants with assets that “far exceeded the eligibility requirements”.

Asked how long the newly created benefit fund will continue, Mr Hayward said the initial term ends on March 31. With high unemployment levels expected to continue, he said the Government will determine how long it will continue between now and then.

The next tourism season does not begin until April 2021 and with unprecedented unemployment levels skyrocketing in the US, we still don’t know how the next season will pan out yet.

In the interim, he said the “focus is to proceed with Phase 1 of the Re-employment Strategy” to help people prepare and upskill for jobs in restaurants, cleaning industries and landscaping “to replace work permit holders in specific occupations”.

“We will also support training, especially for occupations within our hotel industry, so that prospective employees are fully prepared for the opening of the next Tourist season…and the expected opening of the St. Regis.”

Overall, Finance Minister Curtis Dickinson said the Government paid out nearly $57 million to more than 10,000 unemployed residents since the global pandemic hit our shores earlier this year.

As for the impact of this pandemic on the island’s debt, he said it will definitely “have an adverse impact” on the next fiscal year.

“The combination of lower fiscal revenues and higher public spending is expected to result in an increase of the projected budget deficit,” he said.

“Preliminary estimates are that revenue for the 2020/2021 fiscal year could contract by $200 million. After factoring in the impact of lost revenue and additional expenses relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Government’s responses, the revised deficit for the 2020/2021 fiscal year was estimated to be in the range of $275 million to $315 million, assuming no cost-saving measures were taken to reduce spending.

“However, giving effect to cost-saving measures implemented by the Government, the Ministry of Finance was targeting a deficit level for the 2020/2021 fiscal year of as much as $225 million.

“Such cost-saving measures include, freezing the funding of vacant Government posts that are not required to address COVID-19-related matters or to protect Bermuda’s national interests, banning non-essential government travel and reducing all discretionary spending, including training, materials and supplies, clothing and uniforms,” said the Minister.

“Additionally to reduce the deficit further, other temporary payroll or government employee overhead savings are being considered and the Government has been in negotiations with the Unions on this matter. I can advise that the three largest unions representing over 80 percent of public sector employees have agreed to the Government’s cost saving measures. I would like to thank those public sector workers, and those in government funded organisations who have agreed to actions which will contribute to reducing the deficit.”

He also noted that although the Fiscal Plan as a result of this pandemic “originally called for a delay in some capital projects that have not commenced”, the Government revised their “approach to not only support essential capital projects that must continue, but to support additional projects”.

“Therefore, some of the funding from our recent debt raise will be used to bring forward some aspects of the Government’s long term capital plan. These capital projects will support our economic recovery, provide employment for Bermudians, and improve our quality of life.

‘Additionally, we will fund new projects, such as investments in renewable energy that will reduce the Government’s electricity bill in the long run while providing jobs for Bermudians. These stimulus measures ensure that there is a degree of sustained economic activity in the Bermuda economy until the expected return on cruise visitors next April.”

Some of the projects that will be funded or have been moved up include:

  • Department of Public Transportation (DPT) Bus Depot Improvement for staff bathroom and changing facilities in St George’s and the Devonshire Bus Depots.
  • Improvements to Marine and Ports East Broadway
  • Interior fit out for Child and Family Service 131 Front St Offices
  • Botanical Gardens Visitors Centre Improvements
  • Sessions House [Parliament Building] Exterior and Interior Refurbishment.
  • Westgate improvements for new boilers system, HVAC and water supply system. New steel doors and windows.
  • Solar installations on 6 Government Buildings
  • Shoreside Facility for Local Fishing Cooperative
  • Halfway House for the Department of Child and Family Services
  • Refurbishment of Parish Clinics
  • Reconstruction and repairing of Retaining Walls
  • Upgrades to Pembroke Canal

“Recognizing the importance of empowering and providing financial support for our community clubs additional Capital Grant funding will be provided for community club development,” he added.

“We are continually evaluating our Fiscal Plan, and we will make appropriate amendments in line with changing circumstances. However the overall targets remain, bringing our budget back into balance in three (3) years, when we expect full economic and tourism recovery to take effect in 2022.”