By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A Cabinet minister last night blamed Baha Mar for the hold-up that has resulted in hundreds of its furloughed employees not receiving due unemployment benefits for up to four weeks.
Brensil Rolle, minister with responsibility for the public service and National Insurance, told Tribune Business that the mega resort had failed to supply the Government with a list of still-furloughed employees at its Grand Hyatt, SLS and Rosewood brands as well as the Melia Nassau Beach resort.
He explained that the Government required this information, which is requested from all other hotels and employers with still temporarily laid-off staff, so that the National Insurance Board (NIB) - which is administering the now-taxpayer funded benefits - can verify that each worker's status has remained unchanged.
Explaining that this was done "to cover our backs", and ensure the Government's scarce resources were directed to those most in need, instead of unemployment benefits going to persons who had gone back to work, Mr Rolle said he was "puzzled" by Baha Mar's failure to send its employee list.
Phone calls, messages and texts sent to Robert Sands, Baha Mar's senior vice-president of government and external affairs, seeking comment were not returned before press time last night. However, Mr Rolle said the Cable Beach-based mega resort had always co-operated in supplying the names of furloughed employees up until the point that benefits were cut to $100 a few weeks ago.
"From the start of the pandemic when the Government first issued its assistance, beginning at $200 per week and then to $150 and $100, at every turn we requested Baha Mar to provide us with the list of individuals who were unemployed," he told Tribune Business.
"We need to see the list to verify that persons are unemployed. They have not submitted that to us, so we cannot pay them." NIB has typically paid unemployment benefits to furloughed individuals via their employers, both for its own 13-week benefit and the subsequent government funded extensions.
With Baha Mar paying its staff 30 percent of their regular salaries, Mr Rolle said NIB and the Government had netted off this sum against the unemployment benefits they were due, effectively paying the difference. He added, though, that no reason had been given for why the mega resort had not submitted its furloughed employee list after the payouts were cut to $100 per week.
"One of my officers dealing with the problem said they were told by Baha Mar that Baha Mar is going to approach the Ministry of Finance," he recalled. "We're just waiting for them. It's not been a problem in the past. It only became a problem when unemployment assistance was reduced to $100. Before then there was no issue.
"The list is all we're waiting for to issue cheques. That's where we are. We've got to be in a position to account for the Government's money, and to have our backs covered, as was done in the past. It's really the Government's money, the people's money and the Ministry of Finance's money.
"I don't know why they're [Baha Mar] reluctant at this point. It's been about four weeks, and I'm very concerned. It's puzzling to me. They had been doing it all along."
Tribune Business contacted Mr Rolle after numerous Baha Mar and Melia staff approached this newspaper to complain they had received no unemployment benefit for up to four weeks.
One Melia employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they and their colleagues were not receiving a portion of their salary - unlike staff on the main Baha Mar campus. They said they were almost totally reliant on the $100 weekly unemployment benefit to keep bills under control and put food on the table.
Revealing that several of their co-workers were in the same position, they added that their Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union shop steward was told by Melia's human resources that the hotel was still waiting for the money when she sought to intervene on the workers' behalf.
"Other hotels are being paid, and it looks like we're the only ones who aren't," the Melia worker said. "Why would Baha Mar/Melia not send them the list of people needing assistance? I don't understand that. It's not sitting well with me. It's crazy. I don't see why they'd hold up on the information.
"I'm not working. I'm depending on that to pay my bills. It's food in my stomach. Right now the bills are backing up and I'm not doing anything else. The people need their money. We're not getting anything from Baha Mar or Melia. That's why it's essential to get the payment. I'm trying to look for something, but the state of the country right now......."
Mr Rolle revealed earlier this year that NIB has paid out some $176m in assistance related to COVID-19 and Hurricane Dorian. He added that the social security system has issued $91.6m in unemployment benefit payments to 37,000 beneficiaries since the onset of the pandemic.
As for the Government’s own unemployment benefit programme, Mr Rolle said $56.1m has been spent towards that initiative so far to over 30,000 persons, with $15.6m paid out directly to self-employed people.