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Labor Forum Highlights Serious Issues Facing the Workforce and Employers

Sept. 3, 2005 — Panelists at the V.I.'s first ever Labor Forum kept it honest Friday, revealing the truth about labor relations between employers and employees throughout the territory to senators and a small gathering of St. Thomas residents.
"Our people need intensive development, and public-private collaboration to overcome many of our challenges that keep our people out of jobs and economic prosperity," Carmelo Rivera, director of employee relations and public affairs for Turner St. Croix Maintenance Inc. said. Rivera added that high illiteracy rates, low education achievement standards, and challenges faced with work ethics are what keep local employees from excelling on the job.
Rivera claimed that 30-40 percent of the territory's workforce is functionally illiterate and said that many other workers do not have the ability to read and write beyond an eighth grade level. "Because of this, we have difficulty finding workers to pass entry level employment tests — just ask our hospitals, where even college grads have difficulty passing a licensing nursing exam, or the VIPD who can't find sufficient local people to pass their entrance examinations," Rivera said.
When asked by Sen. Ronald Russell how the territory can change illiteracy standards in the workplace, Rivera said that employers have to provide as much training as possible, including tutoring or specific sessions where the individual is able to learn and test their craft.
"While I do agree with what you're saying, we have to face reality and see that this is a large percentage of our workforce," Russell said in response. "And we have to provide jobs for them, too. We can't just forget about them."
Rivera also told those present at the forum employees' work ethics have to change, as V.I. workers have the tendency to be too "laid back" on the job, too violent in the workplace, and too unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. "There are many problems with tardiness and absenteeism…we jokingly call it St. Thomian time, or Crucian time—or island time because we think it's cute and cultural," Rivera said.
Rivera added the propensity for employees in the V.I. to sue employers is a "quick cash lottery game," where workers can collect a sizable amount of money from the most insignificant occurrences. "A fly drops in our coffee in the employer's cafeteria, so we sue the employer. It rains, we get wet, we sneeze, and we sue the employer. It's bizarre."
And costly. Because of such practices, Rivera said insurance companies often hesitate or refuse to do business in the territory, resulting in the loss of health care benefits packages for workers. In addition, Rivera told listeners, government departments are not productive, or held accountable for their actions, subsequently creating a critical need for legal reform.
Panelist Bennett Chan, attorney with Dudley, Clark and Chan, added that significant delays in processing legal cases also led to an inflated risk for private sector employers. Chan said a minimum wage employee earns approximately $10,000 per year; a case delayed for five years could result in that employee being awarded $50,000, especially if the employee had not obtained another job while the case was being processed. Chan said a case going through the V.I. system often takes several years.
"Furthermore, employers are limited in their ability to dismiss employees because of the legal reasons listed in the Wrongful Discharge Act," Chan said. The act allows individuals who have been fired from their jobs to sue, and severely limits the grounds upon which these individuals can be fired. "The act is too narrow. There are only nine reasons for which an employee can be discharged," Chan said. "This doesn't take into account every possible reason which could or should allow an employer to discharge an employee,"
To solve this, Chan suggested that a "just cause clause" included in unionized employees' collective bargaining agreements be added to every agreement in the negotiation process. This measure would mean any discharge is judged based on the total circumstances surrounding the incident, taking into account factors such as the seriousness of the offense and what the employer has done in similar circumstances.
However, challenges and delays in negotiating collective bargaining agreements are problematic to the inclusion of this or any other clause. In addition to employees being owed $405 million in retroactive pay from the government, Karen Andrews, chief negotiator for the Office of Collective Bargaining, said by the end of this month, 28 out of 30 union bargaining contracts will be expired or non existent.
"It is unrealistic to think that we could negotiate and fund twenty-eight contracts in one fiscal year; however, this is the clarion call by the various unions," Andrews said. "As a result, we may be forced to declare an impasse." Once this occurs, Andrews said the union and the government have to forward their bargaining requests to a mediation/arbitration panel—a "risky proposition" at best.
"It is widely known that arbitrators have made awards based on the belief that the government can deficit spend or raise revenue…or, that the executive branch must negotiate, while the Legislature appropriates. I ask you, are we negotiating in good faith when we all know that we can't afford to do this?" Andrews said.
Sen. Lorraine L. Berry made similar comments. "The executive branch is influencing the positive balance of our government. Not only are laborers treated like pawns instead of partners, but their contracts are being negotiated after the budget has passed without the funds available to maintain them." Consequently, Berry added, the labor force does not trust the government.
Andrews also said that the method for negotiating wage increases for unionized public sector employees has become ineffective. A letter presented at the forum by United Steelworkers Union representatives supported this statement by stating that after Oct. 1, 2005, Notices of Personnel Action (NOPA's) will only be executed for certain unions.
The Supervisors Union members, for example, will not be receiving an increase – which amounts to pay loss that will affect nearly 450 employees and their families. In fact, members have not received a salary increase since 1997, while the cost of living in the V.I. has increased.
Other panelists present for the forum were Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson; Archie Jennings, attorney; Valdemar A. Hill Jr.; Vernelle deLagarde; Aubrey Lee; Luis A. "Tito" Morales, and Alfonso Nibbs.
Despite the enthusiasm of the sponsors and the noteworthy presenters less than a dozen community members showed up for the forum.


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