Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves says it is his “settled view” that teachers dismissed over the vaccine mandate have nothing to lose by reapplying for employment.
He, however, said that the government cannot merely reinstate them as doing so would be to say that the government ought not to have acted as it did.
Hundreds of teachers and other public sector workers were fired from their jobs late last year for not taking a COVID-19 vaccine as mandated by law.
The government says it is willing to rehire certain categories of unvaccinated workers, including teachers, but Gonsalves has noted that this is not a reinstatement.
At a press conference in Kingstown on Tuesday, he pleaded with teachers to reapply.
iWitness News asked Gonsalves, what, if anything, would the government lose by reinstating the teachers, even as the government said they have nothing to lose by reapplying.
“If we say we reinstate workers, we will be saying that we ought not to have passed the law in the first place. But the law, which was passed, was passed as part of the COVID measures,” the prime minister said.
“And I gave the background just now, as being constitutional in that it was reasonably required for a public purpose, that is to say, public health and that is reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. So, in our view, it passes constitutional muster.”
The Teachers’ Union and the Public Service Union and some of their member disagree with the government’s view and are suing the government over the mandate and the resulting dismissals.
The trial of the matter is slated for November, and Gonsalves said that the teachers’ case would not be affected if they reapply.
Now, if I were to say or the government were to say that you’re reinstating, it means that you are admitting that what you did was not a necessary thing to do,” Gonsalves said.
“… therefore, if it is a reinstatement, you will have to pay the persons for the period of whatever, months — six, eight months — whatever the time that they haven’t been working, because you will say that you would have unlawfully dismissed them in that period by acting unconstitutionally.”
iWitness News asked the prime minister whether reinstating the workers could also mean that the government was saying that the COVID-19 situation substantially has changed.
“Yes, but reinstatement, in law, has a different meaning. … as far as we’re concerned, under the law, the teachers failed and or refused to comply with the requirements of the law, which we are satisfied is constitutional and legal. They’re contesting that. And that’s fine. That’s their right; I don’t have a quarrel with that.
“So, the employer holds that position, saying, ‘Look, there is an altered epidemiological situation and we can employ you back within this window but the condition on which you have to come is one central condition — there are others — is that you take it tests on a periodic basis as advised by the Chief Medical Officer.”
He said that it may be that in six months’ time, there might be no need for a test.
“Maybe the World Health Organization — we may reach a stage where they say there’s no longer a global pandemic. That may well be the case. The point I’m making to you and I make to the teachers is that you can still maintain that the government acted unconstitutionally with your case, but take the opportunity to get back your job.”
He said that the exception is where a teacher does not want to take a COVID-19 test.
“So if you come back and you’re in your job, and you’re getting your pay, you’re fine, you still continue. If you lose your case, well, what you’re now interested in is to make sure that from the time you start to work back that you add your years for the retirement benefit, that you don’t lose that benefit. And I tell you, you wouldn’t lose that benefit. Under the current law, you wouldn’t use it; you wouldn’t lose it.”
He said that if the teachers win the court case, there would be a determination of whatever damages that should be awarded.
“But you haven’t — by coming back to work, you haven’t lost anything. And you wouldn’t lose anything. I am trying, as a rational person, to understand how you have anything to lose,” the prime minister said.
He said that on Monday, he told the chief personnel officer that teachers who reapply should be rehired at the same scale as when they exited.
The only problem would be for principals, as those positions have already been filled.
“And then you come back, you were a principal and get a senior teaching position. The difference between your salary, probably not going to be that significant at that moment,” Gonsalves said.
“I don’t think that anybody can say that what Ralph is saying here is unreasonable.”
Gonsalves said “the window is narrowing” for dismissed teachers to be rehired, adding that he had asked that the application period be extended by a week to next Monday.
“… they are thinking that I am bending over backwards. And I say but this is not a question of I am bending over backwards because there are other teachers who are complaining, and I’m getting the message that, ‘Whappen, they didn’t take the vaccine, they shoulda tek it. They special?’
“None of those thoughts are coming in my head. I am too mature a leader to entertain those kinds of infantile, puerile considerations. And I have no vanity on it at all. And persons who know me know that I’m speaking the truth,” Gonsalves said.