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HomeNewsArchivesLabor Committee OKs Bill to Help Laid-Off Workers

Labor Committee OKs Bill to Help Laid-Off Workers

Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan (left) testifies on behalf of the bill Monday.The Senate Labor and Agriculture Committee approved a bill Monday to enhance severance pay, establish rehiring preferences and increase notification rules when companies lay off large numbers of employees.
Current law requires companies that close, relocate or lay off 10 or more employees to give 90 days’ advance notice and pay severance equal to a week of pay per year of employment. The bill, proposed by Sens. Shawn-Michael Malone and Usie Richards, would add severance pay for time at "predecessor" employers, where companies take on new ownership but continue with the same employees.
Both the seller and buyer of the company would have notification requirements, and the volume of required information would increase. According to the bill’s provision’s, laid-off employees would have "permanent preference in hiring and employment at other workplaces of the employer," and rehired employees would retain seniority and its accompanying benefits in their new position.
Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan endorsed the bill’s overall purpose, saying it served largely to mimic a federal labor law designed to mitigate the effects of plant closings. Bryan also recommended changes to the bill, so it covered not just plant closings and mass layoffs, but situations where a company is sold and reorganized.
"This is an important change as it captures the loophole that many of our citizens have lost their benefits of tenure through," said Bryan. Ira Hobson, president of United Steelworks Local 8248 on St. Croix, supported the bill and agreed with Bryan that workers were losing benefits as contractors moved employees around.
Hobson hailed the bill’s increase in worker protections but urged that more be done. According to Hobson, 92 boilermakers, pipefitters, millwrights and others lost benefits recently when Hovensa stopped using contractors and hired workers to do the jobs in-house.
"The subcontractors’ only advice to these laid-off workers were for them to apply online and hope to qualify for 92 positions being offered by Hovensa," Hobson said. Other workers are hired on contract and let go, working for much of the year, but falling through all the regulatory cracks, he said. "There are people who work turnaround, sometimes two or three times within a single year," he said. "They never make their 90-day probation, but work several times over the course of the year."
The bill before the committee does not address those particular concerns raised by Hobson.
Michael Dembeck, executive director of the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce, urged the Senate to soften the bill, on the grounds it might hurt business during this recession.
"Our members are concerned that it will be yet another disincentive for entrepreneurs to open businesses in the Virgin Islands and for existing small businesses to expand their work forces," Dembeck said. "At the very least, we would recommend that the bill be amended to apply only to businesses employing 25 or more full-time employees, rather than businesses employing 10 or more employees."
He later qualified that, recommending the higher threshold for regular companies but keeping the lower, 10-employee threshold for companies receiving Economic Development Commission tax benefits.
Hovensa Vice President Alex Moorhead testified neither for nor against the bill but offered some detailed technical revisions, largely aimed at clarifying the bill’s definitions and terms.
After several technical amendments were approved, the committee passed the bill on to the Rules Committee with a favorable recommendation.
Voting yea were Sens. Richards, Terrence "Positive" Nelson, Nereida Rivera-O’Reilly and Sammuel Sanes. Senators absent were Malone, Craig Barshinger and Carlton "Ital" Dowe.

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