By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The hotel union's president yesterday said it has "risen to the occasion" to provide COVID-19 relief to its 5,500 members via "an advance" from the industry's Health and Welfare Fund.
Darrin Woods told Tribune Business that the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union (BHCAWU) has received the necessary government and police permissions to distribute assistance using a "drive through" process that will kick-off on Monday at Workers House on Tonique Williams Highway.
The aid, which will take the form of redeemable food vouchers for use at AML Foods' Solomon's and Cost Right stores, has been financed by an advance from the Health and Welfare Fund that Mr Woods said will have to "reconciled" against the quantity and value of aid distributed.
Declining to detail the financial arrangements, as these have yet to be revealed to union members, Mr Woods said it was essential to "jump start" much-needed assistance for thousands of laid-off resort workers as he likened the move to the government's $20m small business loan assistance initiative.
Describing the pandemic's "unprecedented" economic fall-out as "something I pray to God we never see again", the union chief acknowledged the need to both further diversify the tourism industry and wider Bahamian economy to make them more resilient against such future shocks.
He added that the union had already been exploring the launch of its "Reboot" programme, which was designed to provide hotel workers whose jobs are threatened by technology with new skills, and suggested this may have to be adjusted to now account for COVID-19 and the threat of future pandemics.
Mr Woods spoke after Tribune Business obtained the April 14 note he sent to union members advising them that the food vouchers will be distributed over five days next week. "In response to the effect of COVID-19 on our industry, we were able to negotiate an advance from the union [industry] Health and Welfare Fund on behalf of all employees in the bargaining unit," Mr Woods wrote.
"This advance will take the form of vouchers redeemable at Cost Right and Solomon's stores. The advance will be reconciled by the union, and full details will be presented at our next membership meeting."
Mr Woods said the food voucher distribution will take place from April 20-24, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 9am and 2.30pm at Workers House where union members will pick up the assistance in their cars using a drive through. Social distancing, and the wearing of protective face masks, is mandatory.
Union members at the British Colonial Hilton, Ocean Club, Melia, Harborside Resort, the Towne Hotel, Restaurants Bahamas (KFC) and Best Western (Bayview Villas) will be able to obtain their food vouchers on Monday.
The following three days will be reserved for Atlantis employees, who will be split into three groups based on the first letter of their surname. Friday is being allocated for "all employees who have missed their assigned days", with union members having to present work or government-issued identification to be able to pick-up their vouchers.
"It has to be done by drive through, and members will not be able to come out of the car; they will have to pick-up and leave," Mr Woods said yesterday. "The police are going to be there to ensure they follow the rules. If not they will go and shut us down.
"This pretty much takes a load of of us. We're now able execute on what we had put in place for three to four weeks. We're kind of on target as it relates to timing, as we were looking at three weeks after the initial notice was given when something had to be done."
The union president said the assistance it will provide is "on another scale" to what it has faced previously, as relief efforts in prior years commonly focused on staff affected by the closure of a single property. The present effort involves an entire industry.
"Everyone in the industry is hurting right now, and we're just trying to give out best to assist the workers right now," Mr Woods said, adding that the effort will "cost quite a bit of money as you can suppose".
He declined to provide details, though, on the basis that these had not been shared or discussed with union members. However, the union chief confirmed that the vouchers have been financed with an advance from the Health and Welfare Fund.
"It's an advance by them that has to be reconciled by us at the end of the day," Mr Woods told Tribune Business. "The members will get a full understanding of what has transpired at this time, the short and long-term impact of it.
"We were just happy that in the middle of all this, it's difficult for anybody to come up with the sum of money that's required. Everyone needs help. When it's all said and done, however you jump start, it's similar to how small businesses go and get capital. It's not a gift.
"We're just happy we were able to rise to the occasion, get what we were able to get, and bring some relief to the workers. This is a season within our country, unprecedented, and I pray to God it's never seen again."
Some hotel union members, though, have privately questioned to Tribune Business why the union is relying on an "advance" from the Health and Welfare Fund rather than deploying any of its own financial resources.
They pointed out that the union's constitution mandates that it provides financial aid during times of hardship, and also queried why Lyford Cay Club members were not included in the food voucher distribution. Although that property is closing for renovations, and the staff terminated, this newspaper was told they remain members for a three-month period.
Mr Woods yesterday said Lyford Cay Club staff will be "dealt with separately, and in another fashion, in short order", Pledging that "they don't lose anything", he explained that the focus is on workers temporarily laid-off with no source of income or social safety net. The Lyford Cay Club staff received severance pay and benefits due to them both under the Employment Act and last industrial agreement.
The Health and Welfare Fund, too, was created specifically to assist hotel workers who have been made redundant, not those who - in this particular instance with COVID-19- have been temporarily furloughed or laid-off.
Tribune Business understands that the Health and Welfare Fund is governed by 14 trustees, seven appointed by industry employers and seven by the union, with the agreement of both sides required for assistance to be given in this particular instance.