By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A major Bahamian hardware retailer's principal yesterday said it was "the worst decision I've had to make in my life" to temporarily lay-off nearly 70 staff in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Brent Burrows, CBS Bahamas (Commonwealth Building Supplies) chief, told Tribune Business that with zero revenue coming in the company had to do what was necessary to "survive" so that employees had jobs to return to once the virus threat has passed.
Echoing what is likely to be the sentiments of many Bahamian employers forced to close by the nationwide lockdown, Mr Burrows pledged that the firm would do everything in its power to "make it right" for its staff as he warned that the private sector and wider economy face "a long climb to get out of this one".
He spoke out after Tribune Business received a copy of an April 1 letter, addressed to employees at CBS Bahamas and Aluminum Fabricators, confirming the company's decision to initiate temporary lay-offs due to the pandemic.
The letter, signed by Mr Burrows, said: "As a result of COVID-19 and the shut down of all our business operations since March 20 we will temporarily lay-off all employees as of April 1, 2020....
"We are all in limbo as to how long COVID-19 will affect our country, but we must do our part and remain at home and follow the direction of the authorities so that we can reduce the spread of the virus and minimise the deaths."
Mr Burrows said CBS Bahamas' human resources officer was now "in the process of completing all necessary paperwork in order that we may submit to the National Insurance Board (NIB) so that you can receive the unemployment benefits due to you...
"CBS is committed to you, and assures you that we will do everything in our power and resources to rebuild our staff and company."
Mr Burrows yesterday told this newspaper that CBS Bahamas had been waiting to hear the details surrounding the Government's $60m tax credit and deferral initiative, which is aimed at companies its size in a bid to provide payroll support and ensure they retain a collective 10,000 jobs.
This programme would give companies such as CBS Bahamas some $600,000, or $200,000 per month, over a three-month period, split equally between a non-refundable tax credit and deferred VAT/Business Licence payments which will have to be paid back in instalments during 2021 once the pandemic has passed.
K Peter Turnquest, the deputy prime minister, said the initiative was intended to enable companies to cover payroll for non-executive staff via a combination of government monies and due taxes provided firms committed to retaining 80 percent of their pre-crisis workforce. However, the details sought by Mr Burrows and others have not been forthcoming.
As a result, he and CBS Bahamas have been left with no alternative but to go the temporary lay-off route to ensure its employees are not left too far down the queue when it comes to applying for National Insurance Board (NIB) benefits.
"It's the worst decision I've had to make in my life," Mr Burrows told Tribune Business of the temporary lay-offs. "With our economy how it's been the last couple of weeks, I doubt there's any company in The Bahamas that has the available cash to keep paying their employees.
"The reality is it has only been in the last seven to eight months that business has started to pick-up. We've been catching hell for several years. It's a very tough situation. We're hoping at the end of the day to bring our employees back and make it right by them. We have a fantastic team at CBS, just a little less than 70."
CBS Bahamas' efforts to bring in some revenue, which might have allowed it to keep paying staff, have been thwarted at every turn. Itself, together with other leading hardware and home improvements retailers, had initially successfully lobbied to open to licensed contractors only, but that was shut down two days later by the Government issuing a new Emergency Powers Order.
And, just last week, Tribune Business detailed how it had been able to obtain an answer either way from the Government on being able to operate a home delivery service - where there would be no staff or customer contact - using a 35,000-product e-commerce platform it has invested thousands of dollars in developing.
Mr Burrows said that given this backdrop, and the likely pile-up of NIB applications, "we didn't want to be caught two weeks' down the road and our employees be waiting to get money out of NIB for stuff that they've been paying in for years. We just took the position at this time that it's all the staff. It's difficult to cherry pick. We hope to re-hire our employees, the majority of them, when we open back up".
"I honestly don't think we'll be out of this before the end of the month," he told Tribune Business of the nationwide lockdown. "If we're able to survive we'll at least have jobs for the staff to come back to, but if we don't do what we have to do financially, there'll be no company to come back to and work for. That's the situation we're all in.
"I just hope at the end of the day our country comes out of this and is able to survive. It's going to be very tough. It's not going to be business as usual. It will be a long climb to get out of this one. Right now, we're not doing anything. Everything is closed down."
Mr Burrows added that CBS Bahamas' contracts business, where it provides services to contractors and construction sites, was also closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. "We're hoping that when the country opens back up that bounces back quicker as we have contracts in play," he said.