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Senators Hear Pros, Cons of Employee Protection Bill

Feb. 1, 2008 — At a Senate Labor Committee public hearing Thursday in Frederiksted, employee safeguards were weighed against employer constraints that could scare off some businesses attracted by Economic Development Commission (EDC) benefits. At issue was an act introduced by Sen. Louis Patrick Hill amending the V.I. code to protect the ranking or benefits of an employee when a beneficiary company has changed hands.
"We must insure our people have benefits preserved," Hill said. "We must maintain upward mobility."
Hill told the committee that many times a company after a buyout brings management in from somewhere else. Some employees sometimes have to go through a hiring process like new employees. Others may be faced with the prospect of losing a job and benefits without a severance package.
Hill said many of these companies are from the private sector, not just Economic Development Commission (EDC) beneficiaries.
Hill said he wanted the amended bill to be crafted in a language that is beneficial to the employee. "Not just a bracelet and a watch after years of service," Hill said.
Sen. Juan Figueroa-Serville, committee chairman, said it should be crafted so it applies to every tax-paying resident.
He asked Albert Bryan Jr., commissioner of labor, if his department had any recommendations.
Bryan said he agreed "1,000 percent" with the amendment. "But it really belongs in the plant-closing law," Bryan said.
In a prepared statement, the commissioner said that while the intention of the proposed legislation is worthy, it seeks to keep employers from adjusting a company’s structure and would create another obstacle between businesses and the V. I. economy.
Bryan implored the committee to be consistent with current legislation to ensure consistency of the EDC program.
"We have to be careful not to change the rules halfway through," Bryan said, "as it creates an environment of uncertainty and mistrust for present and potential beneficiaries."
Rights and benefits are decided by collective bargaining between employers and employees, he added. Bryan said they also have to uphold the Equal Opportunity Employer laws.
The issue of contractors paying employees cash and not factoring in deductions was brought up by Sen. Liston A. Davis.
"We're losing millions of dollars to unscrupulous contractors," Davis said.
Bryan said businesses have to be held accountable. "We have inspectors and investigators that create a presence and make people honest," Bryant said.
"The discussions begun here are connected to larger societal issues," Sen. Basil Ottley Jr. said. "What does it take for the average person to survive on and be self-sufficient?"
Bryan said the Labor Department wants to make sure locals are ready to compete in the labor market.
Bryan was the lone testifier on the bill. According to the commissioner, EDC companies cannot transfer benefits from one company to another. He said the new owner must secure a certificate on its own and that transfer of business does not guarantee the transfer of the certificate.
Senators voted unanimously to keep the bill in committee for further consideration and pending amendments.
Committee members at Thursday’s hearing were Juan Figueroa-Serville, Liston A. Davis, Louis P. Hill, Terrence Nelson, Basil Ottley Jr. and Ronald E. Russell. Non-committee member was Usie R. Richards.
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