By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Atlantis workers have hailed the mega resort's plans to pay staff up to 50 percent of their base salaries for the next 60 days as a "wonderful thing" to mitigate COVID-19's financial fall-out.
Dave Beckford, a 25-year Atlantis veteran and former Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union (BHCAWU) presidential candidate, told Tribune Business that the assistance unveiled by the Paradise Island property on Friday was critical to enabling its 8,000 staff to ride out the virus-enforced economic shutdown.
He spoke out after Tribune Business obtained a March 27, 2020, letter to Atlantis staff detailing how The Bahamas' largest private sector employer will assist them during a temporary lay-off that will last until at least May 15. It said members of the union's bargaining unit will receive an "ex-gratia" payment next month to be funded via from the industry's Health and Welfare trust fund.
This "will be facilitated by Atlantis and deposited directly into the bank account into which your regular wages are deposited", union members were told. "The first payment will be on or before the end of April. The trustees of the fund will give consideration for a second payment at a later date."
As for non-union members, including managerial level staff, Atlantis added: "All full-time, non-union team members will receive an ex-gratia weekly payment equivalent to 50 percent of their base pay for up to 60 days".
The letter added that all Atlantis staff would have their health benefits continued for up to 60 days, and urged them to file for the unemployment benefits that the Government is making available for temporarily laid-off workers through the National Insurance Board (NIB).
"These ex-gratia payments have no effect on your eligibility for unemployment benefits," the letter added. "Please be mindful that NIB has thousands of filings over the past few weeks, and it may take some time for your unemployment benefits to be processed."
It said that Atlantis has "been working diligently to identify a feasible solution to the set of changes we are all facing. Given that the resort is closed we are left with a difficult situation.
"We have always endeavoured to put you, our team members, first. We all play important roles here at Atlantis and are equally responsible for the success we have shared over the years. Each of you represents the face of Atlantis, even more so than the iconic Royal [Towers] photo recognised worldwide."
An Atlantis spokesperson declined to comment on the letter when contacted yesterday, but did not deny or dispute its authenticity. The terms offered to staff mirror those provided by its rival destination resort, Baha Mar, which is paying full-time employees 40 percent of their base pay for 90 days from March 26, 202, along with insurance premiums for a variety of coverages.
Meanwhile, Mr Beckford, when contacted about the Atlantis letter, said what was pledged would provide much-needed financial relief for employees during a situation "I've never seen in my 25 years" working at the resort.
"It's a wonderful thing," he said of the Paradise Island destination property's plans. "As a hotel worker, that's a good thing. Something is better than nothing. I think it's a wonderful thing, it's a good thing, and is one of the reasons this fund was put in place. I applaud Atlantis for doing that.
"This [COVID-19] will have a devastating impact on people, and devastating consequences for the hotel industry and us that work in the industry. I've not seen this in my 25 years at Atlantis. I've never seem anything like this. This is worse than 9/11.
"As bad as 9/11 was, I was put on four-day weeks for two weeks, and then things improved so I was back to five-day weeks and things returned to normal pretty quickly. But this is unprecedented. Nobody knows when this pandemic is going to come to an end."
Tribune Business reported last week that the hotel union itself was exploring whether the industry's Health and Welfare Fund and Employee Assistance Fund could provide some financial support to thousands of furloughed workers, although several obstacles had to be overcome.
The Health and Welfare Fund is specifically to assist hotel workers who have been made redundant, not those who - in this particular instance - have been temporarily furloughed or laid-off. The Employee Assistance Fund, too, was not established for that purpose, having been created to provide fire and medical assistance.
This newspaper understands that the operation of both funds is strictly governed by trust documents, and it would require agreement among the trustees to use the monies for an alternative purpose such as responding to the fall-out from COVID-19. All this takes time. The hotel industry pension funds are also designed strictly for retirement purposes only, meaning they cannot be used to help.
With these hurdles now seemingly overcome, Mr Beckford questioned whether the Health and Welfare Fund would be used to provide similar financial assistance at other BHCAWU bargaining member properties where staff have also been temporarily laid-off.
These include the likes of the Melia Nassau Beach; British Colonial Hilton; Club Land'Or; Town Hotel; and the Four Seasons Ocean Club. Two of those properties, the British Colonial Hilton and Ocean Club, remain open while another member resort, the Lyford Cay Club, is closing down permanently and terminating the 150-160 staff.
"While I think that's a good thing to get 50 percent of base pay as I work at Atlantis, I hope that's extended to other hotel union properties that come under the same contract as us," Mr Beckford added.
Darrin Woods, the BHCAWU union president, declined to comment when asked by this newspaper whether the Health and Welfare Fund's trustees had agreed to provide similar assistance to hotel workers at other bargaining unit properties.
Praising Atlantis fort its efforts, he added: "Whoever, and whatever, we can get help for the people from we'll take it. We're all in the same boat. Everybody needs a little help. I guess they [Atlantis] mimicked what Baha Mar's going to do. That should be good, and it's a welcome addition."