Chamber wants COVID quarantine sick leave made official

The Chamber of Industry and Commerce says it would prefer an official arrangement that treats COVID-19 quarantine as sick leave, thereby entitling workers to payment while they are off the job.

“The business of quarantine, we have to clarify some things: but when workers have to go into quarantine because of the contact tracing methodology that is used to get people started who may have contracted the virus, when they go into quarantine, they are no longer at work,” executive director of the CIC, Tony Regisford, said on WE FM on Sunday.

Regisford said that at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, the Chamber met with the Labour Department and other stakeholders “and we came up with a sort of thing which was put in place.

“The quarantine would be treated as sick leave once it was verified by some authority, namely a physician.”

Regisford said that this meant that the worker’s wages would continue and they could claim the National Insurance Services (NIS) sick leave benefit.

In this way, the NIS pays 65% benefit and the employer pays 35%.

“That does not go on indefinitely. That goes on for a period, I think, of a month, subject to correction and if that person continues to be off the job because of an ailment … I think the NIS continues to pay that person up to six months. I am subject to correction.

“All I am saying is that what exists now for sick leave arrangements exist for people who are on quarantine.”

He said the challenge is because of the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in St. Vincent and the Grenadines among nationals with no recent travel history.

“… at the initial onset, we didn’t see what we are seeing now. So, while we have put things in place, we weren’t called upon to actually enact them.

“Now, you’ve got a higher incidence and people who are in the workplace have had to go home to be quarantined, wait to be tested, go through the whole exercise that is mandated by the authorities managing the COVID pandemic and so they are not on the job.

“Because there is a higher incidence of that, the verification of the sick leave part, I think we need to do some work on that. I think that is a conversation that we would have next week in terms of making sure that NIS, because NIS needs that verification that the person is officially on sick leave before the NIS will pay the 65%. So that is the matter that needs to be cleared up.”

Regisford said he had spoken to Stuart Haynes, director of NIS on Sunday morning, “and he is very aware of that situation and he does have some discretionary powers, but nothing is better than having an official arrangement in terms of what and how we deal with a situation like that.”

He said the verification of the leave of absence because of quarantine could come from the group mandated by Cabinet to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that a physician’s notice might not be sufficient for the NIS.

“So that is something that we are going to look at,” Regisford said.

He said that the chamber is also examining the downturn in business and businesses having to lay off people.

“Again, The situation prior to now was that anybody being laid off post March 1, 2020 they were treated as a result of the businesses being affected by the COVID pandemic,” Regisford said.

“Anybody laid off then, the period before severance pay kicked in was extended from six weeks to eight weeks and that remained effective until Dec. 31.

“Dec. 31, 2020 is gone, so we have to have a conversation about that. The expectation, however, and I think if I am not mistaken, I think the government has indicated that it now will be likely extended. That same arrangement would be likely extended for another three months at least. But I am saying that, knowing it is not official,” he said.