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Parliament Amends Two Employment Related Laws to Address COVID-19 Fallout

Parliament Amends Two Employment Related Laws to Address COVID-19 Fallout
Leader of the House Dr Ralph Gonsalves moved an Act in Parliament on April 7, 2020 to amend two employment related laws

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Two laws were amended in Parliament last week to benefit employees and employers who have been adversely affected by the impact of COVID-19 in St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG).

Lawmakers on Tuesday, April 7 approved amendments to two acts — the Protection of Employment Act and the National Insurance Act — which were dealt with in an omnibus manner under the COVID-19 Miscellaneous Amendment Act (2020).

Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, the mover of the Act, noted that the Protection of Employment Act under Section 27, highlights that if someone is laid off or sent on unpaid leave for six weeks, they should receive severance payment at the end of that period, as it is taken that the individual has been dismissed.

“The employers requested a consideration that in the circumstances, that this six weeks be extended to eight weeks. The trade unions agreed, the Labour Department thought it was a good proposal within the context of COVID-19. In the sense, give the employers a two weeks and to give the employees really, that extra time that they don’t ask up front for their severance payment,” he said.

He explained that the amendment to this Act has a sunset provision of December 21, 2020.

This means that the original law will revert to the six-week period on January 1, 2021 without lawmakers having to return to Parliament to address the matter.

Amendments were also made to Section 26 of the National Insurance Act to include a provision for an unemployment benefit.

The prime minister said this benefit, which will be serviced from $2 million worth of funds was specially constructed for the COVID-19 period and is expected to last until July 17, 2020.

“As the honourable minister of finance pointed out, that this would address the concerns of about 2000 persons, they would get $300 per month, they’re going to be paid on a fortnightly basis of $75 per week so they get $150 per fortnight,” Gonsalves said.

He said the benefit was to be awarded to insured persons who have not attained a pensionable age, who have been laid off no earlier than March 1, 2020 and have had a stoppage of earnings by virtue of economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Gonsalves noted that workers in the tourism sector would receive $250 from Government, while workers from the other sectors would benefit from the unemployment fund.

The prime minister said however, that to ensure that all workers receive the $300 payout, the NIS will partner with the government to cover the additional $50 to be given to workers from the tourism sector.

“I just want to say, you can’t double dip. You can’t get $300 one way and come for $250 and you can’t get $250 and come for $300. All you can go for is $50 additional, so everybody will get $300.

So we’re sharing whatever largess exists, or in another way, sharing pain and suffering,” he said.

In outlining the conditions for receiving the unemployment benefit, Gonsalves said that it would only be rewarded “if an insured person has paid at least 26 contributions and…has paid or been credited with not less than eight weekly contributions in the period of 13 contribution weeks immediately preceding the contribution week in which the person was laid off”.

He also said that the NIS would have to be careful not to pay out the benefit to an individual who has never made contributions to the institution.

Dr Godwin Friday, the leader of the opposition was the only member of the other side of the House to put forward debate.  And he opined that the unemployment benefit was a useful way of contributing an income to persons who have been affected by COVID-19.

But the opposition leader said that while the $300 payment is helpful, it may not go very far.

He further questioned how one would determine whether a person has been laid off due to COVID-19 so as to be eligible to receive the benefit.

Friday, also speaking on the amendment to the Protection of Employment Act described the amendments as reasonable, given that employers and employees have agreed on the change.

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