Many questions about pandemic leave

Back in 2017, I became concerned when I discovered that a neighbour of mine, who had been employed as a daily-paid worker in the Ministry of Works for over 40 years, had died leaving no pension for his wife to live on.

When I enquired I was told that daily-paid workers’ positions were not pensionable in the government service and that widows and orphans’ pensions were not applicable. At that time, when I looked further, there were 93,000 workers employed by the government, excluding contract workers.

In 2017 there was, and still is, continuous friction between trade unions and employers about the policy of hiring contract workers instead of permanent staff. The rationale behind the employment of contracted workers was that in a fast-moving and highly competitive international economy where, at that time at least, TT was a player, employers needed to be able to adjust their structures quickly as the market demands shifted. Or those not in the government service, anyway.

When I asked about contract workers I was told with a smirk that most of the employees in the Chief Personnel Officer’s (CPO’s) office were now contract workers as, at that time, there were plans to rationalise the public service as it was considered to be too large, too unproductive, not providing a return on investment.

The union’s quite rational counter-view was, and still is, that contract work does not provide employees and their families with financial security, it makes the acquisition of bank loans and mortgages difficult and hence militates against social stability and security.

Please note that was long before a pandemic was even thought of and change was thereby thrust upon us, unexpected and unplanned, and we had no choice.

I do not know what the current number of government contracted workers is, but I very much doubt that it has gone down.

Four days before an election that was touted by all the political analysts as being “too close to call”, and all kinds of scurrilous ad hominem and ad organisation allegations were being made by each party against all the others, the party in power and in control of government employees announced that a new benefit called “authorised absence from work with full pay (covid19 pandemic leave)” was to be granted to all government employees – permanent and temporary. This came like a gift from God to many cash-strapped employees of the state, and included hourly and daily paid workers, part-time, including seasonal workers (this being classified as rainy season as many workers are not being assigned construction and maintenance projects but they are specifically included although not normally rostered to work at this time). It also specifically includes short-term contract workers and long-term contract workers.

At a conservative estimate, this would include a possible 100,000 people.

Timing, we are told, is everything.

The detailed regulations only came to my notice after the election and said that the pandemic pay would only apply to those in the government service who had actually lost pay because they had been certifiably ill and could not work, had been sent home by their supervisor because they “showed symptoms”, were parents of children under 16 who could not work from home and had no support systems, or those who were beyond our borders and could not return.

It was only on second reading that I remembered that all government workers had been sent home on full pay anyway during the three-month lockdown, that this new regulation applied to. Strange.

The new regulation will not apply to workers in the private sector that are the majority of the working force in the country, but those that did read the headlines will, no doubt, be pressuring their trade union representatives, where they have them, to negotiate a similar pandemic provision into their contracts, perhaps not noticing that this regulation is to only apply retroactively.

I spent many years in the legislature of TT where I was told that financial legislation could not be made retroactive. So I question, which ministries and municipal authorities had been able to budget for these retroactive payments? And where, if they had not been budgeted for (and how could they have been?), was the money to come from? New property taxes on the private sector? That is, if what the Prime Minister says and most of us agree is true, that we cannot afford another lockdown.

Who will the pandemic leave apply to going forward? It will be those government employees that are now beginning to test positive, and there are more of those every day. But the leave will only apply if they can get one of the slow-to-be-issued certificates from Carpha stating that they have tested positive for covid19…and that can take weeks.

The new regulations do not say definitively that the certificates have to come from the Government testing organisations, and Wednesday’s media briefing referred to certificates issued by private testing facilities, which leaves open the possibility for citizens other than public servants to determine their status in the future. This is devoutly to be hoped for as we have not just this pandemic to plan for but those, we are told are also sure to come.

Was Dr Rowley, who just a few weeks ago said that the first lockdown had cost the country billions of dollars and there is not enough money to do it again, consulted about this? Or Colm Imbert, the minister of finance, who told government organisations and NGOs that money was scarce and they had to cut expenditure by ten per cent?

Where are the funds to be given to those who now come forward to claim they have lost to come from? Is there more in the government coffers than we know about?

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