By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Chamber of Commerce’s labour specialist yesterday urged the government to extend unemployment benefits to 26 weeks to prevent companies from having to terminate workers.
Peter Goudie told Tribune Business he was “very hopeful” that the Minnis administration would repeat its post-Hurricane Dorian practice of doubling the period during which unemployed storm victims were able to receive benefits from the National Insurance Board (NIB).
He argued that this was the best way to deal with the conundrum presented by reforms to the Employment Act enacted under the Christie administration, which stipulate that after 12-13 weeks - around 90 days - companies must provide due statutory/termination pay to employees who may have been laid-off or sent home.
Hundreds of businesses have temporarily furloughed thousands of Bahamian workers in response to the COVID-19 shutdown with the intention of re-hiring many once the economy re-opens. However, with no end in sight to the pandemic locally or internationally, some firms are getting increasingly fearful that the “90-day” clause will kick-in and they will be required by law to pay full severance.
This is a cost many can ill-afford to bear and, while employees may be relieved to receive a large financial package, they will still have little prospect of securing regular employment and incomes given the ongoing crisis.
“If you remember from Hurricane Dorian they extended the unemployment benefit from 13 weeks to 26 weeks,” Mr Goudie told this newspaper. “I believe they’re looking at that again given this pandemic.
“I don’t think people want to be paid out and not have a job, and not have any prospects of a job. If there’s some way that the government can fund NIB to increase the unemployment benefit; some way to extend it, it makes sense.
“I don’t think people really want to be paid out. I think people really want a job. It’s fine to get a pay out, but what do you do when the country is shut down. It’s an awful situation to be in because you have no permanent separation,” Mr Goudie continued.
“So I’m very hopeful, and I use that word strongly, that the government will seek to extend the unemployment benefit like they did with Hurricane Dorian.”
Backing the government’s efforts, led by the prime minister and Dr Duane Sands, minister of health, to control COVID-19’s spread in The Bahamas, Mr Goudie said success here was critical to the speed and extent to which the country’s economy opened back up.
“I brag about this to people in other countries because they’re doing a good job, and I’m glad it’s the doctors in charge,” he added. “I’m really hopeful that if we can control COVID-19 in our country we can increase commerce even more than we have now.
“There are recommendations coming from the National Tripartite Council and others, but we can then start to look at increasing domestic tourism and increase buying from domestic businesses, which this country needs.
“Then we increase fisheries and increase domestic food production. Agriculture is going to take a while to get ramped up, but the fisheries industry needs to get back in business because that’s good food,” Mr Goudie said.
“I hope this is going to be implemented, so people do not have to live in total fear of not having work or any place to apply for work.”
Mr Goudie said he recently gave a presentation to a Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association (CHTA) webinar where he stressed the need for employers “to be empathetic to our employees” and recognise that the uncertainty and disruption caused by COVID-19 is also presenting mental health challenges.
“I talked from a human resources perspective about the things we need to do as employers to help our employees,” he told Tribune Business. “It’s a tough time, and you and I, we have never been through this in our lifetimes. It’s really amazing what we are all going through.
“We have to be extremely empathetic to our employees. We have to watch what they’re going through. I’m really busy through the Chamber and National Tripartite Council, but there’s an awful lot of people with nothing to do or can’t handle the stress.
“This is a really tough time for people. We may not think it’s a big deal, but some people may not be taking it that well. It’s an unprecedented event, it’s really serious and I’m concerned about some people’s mental health.”