By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Grand Lucayan’s chairman yesterday said the 40 managerial staff alleging they have not been paid for weeks are “authors of their own distress” after they failed to co-operate on accessing unemployment benefits.
Michael Scott QC, dismissing claims by the Bahamas Hotel and Managerial Association (BHMA) that the government-owned resort has been “cherry-picking” who it pays amid the COVID-19 crisis, told Tribune Business it had “bent over backwards” to ease the financial stress on employees during the pandemic.
Emphasising that Lucayan Renewal Holdings, the special purpose vehicle (SPV) that holds the resort, has “not thrown anyone to the wolves”, Mr Scott said the resort’s board and management had provided staff with all outstanding vacation pay and monies due from the hotel’s emergency welfare fund to help them ride out the virus-enforced lockdown.
When those monies were exhausted, he added that the Grand Lucayan sought to further aid staff by “walking them through” the process of applying for National Insurance Board (NIB) unemployment benefits. The workers now complaining of not being paid for months, Mr Scott said, were those who had refused to go through the NIB application process.
He also revealed that the Grand Lucayan is in the process of calculating full termination pay and benefits due to all remaining employees in anticipation of the resort’s purchase by the ITM Group/Royal Caribbean joint venture, Holistica, “closing within the next month”.
Mr Scott confirmed that the government, meaning the Bahamian taxpayer, will assume financial responsibility for fulfilling this obligation to the staff. Adding that “we’re close to getting this concluded”, the QC said there was “no point” in extending the deal’s closing any further, and the government was now “pushing” Holistica to complete the deal for Freeport Harbour’s cruise port expansion with Hutchison Whampoa.
He hit out after Obie Ferguson, the Bahamas Hotel Managerial Association’s (BHMA) president and attorney, accused the Grand Lucayan and the Government of “cherry picking” who it will continue to pay amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The management there, the senior management, decided that they’re going to cherry pick and pick certain people they’d wish to pay and are paying, and are letting the others go without pay,” Mr Ferguson told Tribune Business.
“Some of them have not been paid since March, and this is a government entity. It is our understanding that all government employees are to receive their pay until the Government gives instructions otherwise. There’s no logical reason for this. We are trying to ascertain on whose authority they’re not making payments to staff.
“I have my vice-president Kirk Russell, a chef. He’s not been paid, and they’ve been unable to give him any information.” Mr Ferguson said he had corresponded with Dionisio D’Aguilar, minister of tourism and aviation, who told him he was unaware of the issue when they exchanged e-mails on June 2.
Describing the situation as “very serious”, Mr Ferguson added: “The implication is that this can now be the norm at all government and public corporations. It was my understanding that all public sector entities would continue to be paid and, if the Government has changed policy, we should know.
“If there’s going to be a change of policy it’s only reasonable to expect to sit with the collective bargaining agent, which is the BHMA, and discuss it. You cannot discontinue the pay of the worker and expect it to go like that. You cannot pay some and not the rest of them. The large majority of them they’ve decided not to pay.”
Mr Ferguson said he and the union were trying to determine whether the alleged “cherry picking” had been instigated and approved by the Government before determining their next course of action.
His assertions, though, were instantly dismissed by Mr Scott who argued that the employees involved had been less than co-operative when the Grand Lucayan was forced to largely shut as a result of COVID-19.
“We had to decide what to do with the remaining staff,” he told Tribune Business. “We gave them their outstanding vacation pay, there was the emergency welfare fund where we distributed what was due to staff, and assisted them with filing their NIB claim because most of them were furloughed.
“We sat down with them and walked them through the process because that archaic NIB process can be daunting for people not sophisticated or used to doing it online. The 40 people he’s [Mr Ferguson] talking about are the 40 who refused to go on the NIB process.
“We had to look out for the public interest. You cannot get blood out of a stone. We had to do the same thing as a lot of other businesses. I am so tired of this. We didn’t cut anybody. We said we cannot do it, like a lot of other businesses. We said we will help you navigate the NIB process and the persons he’s talking about are those who refused to work along with us. In short, they are the authors of their own distress,” Mr Scott continued.
“The staff up there, the first-tier management staff, have bent over backwards to help those people. We did the best we could, and I’m satisfied that the management did an excellent job. This complaint is joke; an utter waste of time.
“I’ve got two competing interests to balance here; the hotel and the staff, and the overall public interest. I cannot spend tons of public money paying people not to work when others are not working. It makes no sense. I’m more concerned about the bigger picture, but I can say to you that we’ve not thrown these people to the wolves.”
Arguing that it would be “impossible” for himself and senior Grand Lucayan management to “cherry pick” who they pay or not, Mr Scott suggested that union and political forces were behind the complaints.
He added that, in any case, the resort was working to prepare the final severance/termination packages for all remaining staff as part of the Grand Lucayan’s sale to ITM/Royal Caribbean’s Holistica joint venture. Such moves are customary when hotel owners change, and they allow the new proprietor to start with a clean slate, and the QC added that terminations were likely to be “staggered”.
“We’re trying to get the Holistica deal to close within the next month,” Mr Scott revealed to Tribune Business. “There’s no point to any further extensions. They need to get in place and, when the economy is fully recovered, they should be able to commence construction and get on with it.
“I’m told they’re gradually putting all their ducks in a row. When we coalesce, both sides, on a final date all the other pieces will be worked out. We’re trying to push to get them [Holistica] to get the Hutchison deal concluded. I understand there are one or two minor derivative points to be sorted, but we’re close overall.
“I can’t say definitely when and how, but we’re close to getting this concluded. When I’ve done my duty on the severance, it’s no longer my headache.”