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Charlotte Amalie
Tuesday, July 23, 2024


March 15, 2002 — The V.I. government and a major Hovensa refinery subcontractor are at odds over a pre-employment agreement providing for binding arbitration if employee grievances cannot be resolved internally.
On Wednesday, Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin released an opinion letter from Attorney General Iver Stridiron regarding Wyatt V.I.'s controversial "alternative dispute resolution agreement." Wyatt has recently taken over Hovensa's major maintenance contract.
Stridiron said the pre-employment agreement is in violation of the V.I. Code and called it "unconscionable and coercive."
Later in the day, Wyatt responded in a release stating that the agreement "simply changes the forum for the resolution of such disputes from the incredibly backlogged court system to a forum that can resolve the dispute in a matter of months."
Binding arbitration programs exist on the mainland and are sanctioned under federal law. They require that disputes between employees and employers that cannot be resolved between them be decided by a neutral mediator or a panel of such persons.
Benjamin said such a company policy is not needed in the territory because of a law already on the books. "The U.S. Virgin Islands has a law, the Wrongful Discharge Act, that is designed to protect the workers as well as the employers of this territory," he said. "No job seeker in this territory should be made to feel compelled to sign away their rights in order to feed their family."
Wyatt, however, maintains that its dispute resolution agreement does not supersede the Wrongful Discharge Act or any other law.
"While we certainly respect the attorney general and his office, Wyatt V.I. Inc. strongly disagrees with his conclusion with respect to our dispute resolution agreements," the company said in its release. "Therefore, we welcome the opportunity to have this question of federal law resolved through the court system. We are confident in that our strongly -held beliefs as to the importance and propriety of promptly resolving disputes concerning these significant issues will be upheld."
An official of Hovensa, St. Croix's largest employer, which is developing a similar program, said his company fully supports Wyatt's challenge. Hovensa Vice President Alex Moorhead acknowledged the attorney general's opinion but said Hovensa's arbitration agreement would not require an employee to forgo "any substantive legal rights and will not be overreaching."
"It is Hovensa's policy to abide by the laws of the Virgin Islands and the federal laws applicable to operations in the Virgin Islands," Moorhead said. "However, whenever officials administering the law interpret the law in a manner which we believe is inconsistent with applicable law, Hovensa reserves the right to challenge that interpretation in the courts."

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