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New Atlantis furloughs branded ‘a major blow’

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

Atlantis’ move to place more workers back on furlough was yesterday branded “a major blow” to tourism’s recovery and revived calls for full termination packages to be paid to staff who want them.

Audrey Oswell, the Paradise Island mega resort’s managing director, did not disclose how many employees will be impacted by the decision to temporarily lay-off some of the 2,500 workers recalled pre-Christmas as the property scales back operations in response to reduced booking demand.

In a letter to Atlantis staff, Ms Oswell said shifting guest reservations from the Royal Towers to the Cove with effect from February 4 was “critical to preserving our business” as surging COVID-19 infections and associated travel restrictions - most notably the proposed US quarantine for returning international travellers - continue to ravage The Bahamas’ main visitor source markets.

Indicating that those impacted by the latest furloughs will likely remain home until end-February at least, Ms Oswell said Atlantis hoped to start recalling staff “by the Spring Break season”, which begins at the end of next month with the peak in early to mid-March.

She warned, though, that these plans depended on the resort’s occupancy and booking levels, which are said to already be taking a hit from the uncertainty surrounding the “quarantine” plan announced last week by newly-elected US president, Joe Biden, for all returning US citizens.

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Darrin Woods

Full details on this proposal, and how it will be implemented, will not be known for another two weeks as the relevant US government agencies assess the best practical means to give it effect. However, Darrin Woods, the Bahamas Hotel, Catering and Allied Workers Union’s (BHCAWU) president, said Atlantis had informed him this has already cause “a lot of bookings to be cancelled”.

Atlantis declined to respond to e-mailed questions submitted by Tribune Business yesterday, but informed sources - speaking on condition of anonymity - said the Bahamian tourism flagship was running at just five percent occupancy levels as recently as last week.

Occupancies were said to have remained below ten percent since the New Year, leaving Atlantis unable to “break even” and resulting in a loss, but the resort had been optimistic - prior to Mr Biden’s quarantine move - that better days were not too far away.

This newspaper was told that Atlantis had planned to recall more workers starting from the Super Bowl weekend in early February, with advance March bookings looking particularly strong at between 70-80 percent as The Bahamas headed into the traditional peak winter season and run-up to Easter.

Sources suggested that Atlantis had been hoping to recall its entire workforce by June if all went according to plan, but those hopes have likely been dashed due to skyrocketing COVID-19 infection rates and deaths in the US, UK and other major source markets; the slower-than-anticipated vaccine roll-out; and more stringent border controls and travel restrictions.

With other major resorts likely to experience similar fall-out, and follow Atlantis’ lead by again furloughing recalled staff, both Mr Woods and Obie Ferguson, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) president, yesterday renewed calls for the Paradise Island mega resort to pay full termination packages to any worker who wanted to move on.

With the Prime Minister yesterday unveiling plans to extend the COVID-19 emergency orders until May 23, the suspension of the Employment Act provision requiring employers to pay full separation to workers who have been temporarily laid off for 90 days or more will now likely be extended until late June 2021.

This means that workers who have been furloughed since the pandemic started in late March 2020 could potentially go 15 months without being paid a full separation package, instead having to survive on National Insurance Board (NIB) and government unemployment benefit and whatever else they can earn. But COVID-hit businesses may lack the necessary funds to finance a full payout.

Ms Oswell, in her letter to Atlantis staff, suggested business prospects were more optimistic once the resort and Bahamian tourism get over the next few months. “As the New Year progresses, the overall business outlook for Atlantis is hopeful,” she wrote. “However, for the immediate future we face similar challenges as we have in the last few months.

“The pandemic continues to spike in many of our key markets, new and increased travel restrictions and requirements are in effect, and limited airlift presents roadblocks for travel. As we continue to navigate operating in an ever-changing COVID-19 environment, we will make decisions at times that are very difficult yet critical to preserving our business.

“For this reason, starting on February 4, we are scaling operations, and guest reservations at the Royal will move to The Cove and some colleagues will be placed on temporary furlough. Our plan and hope are to invite team members back by the Spring Break season, pending occupancy.”

Ms Oswell pledged that furloughed staff will receive due vacation payments for February, while health insurance coverage will stay in place “until further advised”. “We know there remain many hard weeks ahead of us, but we also know there is a bright light on the horizon with the recent advances in vaccines and treatments,” she added.

“Atlantis remains positive and patient that the travel industry and tourism in The Bahamas will recover and, with that, the return of all team members at Atlantis.” The resort had been due to re-open The Cove on February 11 and, based on Ms Oswell’s letter, appears to be bringing this forward a week.

No figure was provided for the number of workers furloughed in this ‘second wave’ of temporary lay-offs this January. The hotel union’s Mr Woods said the resort had yet to inform it of the numbers and departments impacted, but told Tribune Business: “It’s a major blow that another group of people are going back home. The morale, of course, is going to go down.

“Based on what they [Atlantis] said to us, and we asked them to put it in writing, the new US travel policy is a big factor. They’ve indicated they’ve got a lot of persons who have cancelled. We know that there’s been indications that things have fallen off, but they didn’t give us an exact percentage. We’d heard a lot of bookings have been cancelled.”

The Atlantis move is the first tangible sign of the chilling effect the Biden administration’s “quarantine” policy is having on Bahamian tourism’s revival even before the details have been fleshed out and implemented.

Mr Woods acknowledged that the resulting uncertainty was already making “people think twice about jumping on a plane to travel” to The Bahamas and other destinations, even though the ultimate fall-out may not be as bad as feared, as he added: “I don’t know how much more we can take. We’ve done all we need to do to keep our numbers down, but are being affected by external factors.

“There’s no confidence by the travelling public to travel based on the protocols that are in place. We’re going to be in this for as long as the markets we cater to, the numbers don’t come down. We’ll probably be in this for a while. We were hoping that by the second quarter of this year things would begin to pick up, but now we don’t know.”

A stunted tourism recovery will result in increased job losses, both temporary and full-time; reduced foreign exchange earnings through the private sector; depressed economic activity; and a recovery that is further prolonged and even more gradual.

This will also likely mean that the Government may have to extend its COVID-19 support initiatives, which are currently due to cease by this month’s end, with the Ministry of Finance aiming to halt all assistance by March 2021, beyond these deadlines.

Meanwhile Mr Ferguson, also an attorney specialising in labour law, yesterday argued that Atlantis and other employers should start offering full severance packages to workers who want them. “If the workers are desirous of having their redundancy payouts then they ought to do so,” he told Tribune Business.

“It appears that this will go on for an indefinite period of time.... I have been asked to do a number of cases against Atlantis. I have filed a few matters with the Labour Board. The individuals came to my office and I’m representing them.

“One of the major mistakes these companies are making is that they should try to meet with representatives of the workers and try to reach agreement with them so things go smoothly and in order. Companies are terminating workers without their representatives being part of the discussion.”

Comments

GodSpeed 3 years, 5 months ago

nobody will make them answer, they were too busy putting the blame on Trump for political purposes.

Proguing 3 years, 5 months ago

"The Atlantis move is the first tangible sign of the chilling effect the Biden administration’s" yep, and unfortunately there will be more...

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