Sept. 3, 2006 – A bill that sets up safeguards for employees forced into signing arbitration agreements was signed into law Saturday by Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, along with a bill appropriating and reprogramming more than $1.9 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Funds.
Both bills have sparked controversy with community members and senators over the past few months.
However, the most significant rounds of debate happened at a recent Rules and Judiciary Committee meeting, where representatives from the business community loudly protested the arbitration bill, which they claimed was "unlawful" and "illegal" (See "Arbitration Bill Moves through Rules Committee after Heavy Debate").
Sen. Ronald E. Russell, the bill's sponsor, has said he crafted the bill because some local employees have been forced into signing arbitration agreements "against their will" prior to being hired. He explained that arbitration agreements prevent workers from suing their employers for unfair labor practices – a right guaranteed under the Constitution, he said.
Thus, the bill makes such an agreement "unenforceable" unless it is entered into "willingly and knowingly" by the employee.
The phrase "willingly and unknowingly" has been much disputed ever since the bill hit the floor in June, with some attorneys claiming that the bill's language is "ambiguous." Other business representatives, such as Hovensa Vice President Alex Moorhead, said the bill "flies in the face" of the Federal Arbitration Act, which establishes a national policy favoring arbitration in "private contractual relationships involving commerce."
Moorhead has also said that the right to execute pre-employment arbitration agreements has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and has been enforced by "all courts having jurisdiction over the Virgin Islands."
At a recent Senate meeting, Moorhead additionally explained that a similar bill regulating the use of arbitration agreements was signed into law by Turnbull in 2002. However, he said that bill was declared unenforceable and invalid by District and Superior Courts.
Despite the opposition, a majority of senators were in favor of the bill when it came to the floor during an Aug. 22 Senate session, voting to send it up to Turnbull for final approval.
Some senators were also opposed to certain appropriations included in the second bill Turnbull signed Saturday, which appropriates and reprograms more than $1.9 million in CDBG funds to various community programs, projects and organizations.
At a recent Senate session, much of the bill's debate centered upon whether or not to reprogram $100,000 worth of CDBG funds requested by the Girl Scouts of the Virgin Islands for the reconstruction of its camp in Estate Bordeaux on St. Thomas. At session's end, senators voted not to reprogram the Girl Scout funds nor funds slated for the development of a community center and cafetorium at Guy Benjamin Elementary School in Coral Bay.
For a list of other approved CDBG appropriations (See "Fate of Girl Scout Camp in Estate Bordeaux Still Uncertain" and "Block Grant Applicants Vie for Limited Funding).
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