By Orville Williams
As Covid-19 continues to negatively impact Antigua and Barbuda’s economy, discussions between the Labour and Health ministries are set to start next week on new rules to govern coronavirus-related work absences.
The issue has been affecting both the public and private sectors since the start of the pandemic, with almost every entity having to do without the services of one or more of their employees for a period of time, due to personal Covid infection or contact-related quarantine.
“The disruption has an impact on commerce, in the public sector as well, where persons who have come into contact with persons with Covid – in order to stem the spread – have got to separate themselves from the workforce.
“So, [both ministries] will be engaging to come to grips with this issue as to how to treat persons who are away from work, when it is treated as sick leave and to come to that balance,” Information Minister Melford Nicholas told yesterday’s post-Cabinet media briefing.
During the height of the pandemic, there was a lot of back-and-forth between employees and employers, about which side should bear the burden for work absences due to Covid-19.
Some employees believed that, whether or not they had statutory sick days available, they should be paid for time missed at work if they were infected with the virus or had to quarantine due to contact tracing.
Similarly, employers were concerned that they could be forced to face the burden of their staff being out for long periods with Covid infection, or that the workers could take advantage of the pandemic by being untruthful about any possible exposure.
Nicholas explained that those types of concerns still exist at this stage of the pandemic and for that reason, they are looking forward to an equitable solution.
“We do not want to have a situation where persons who have to be in quarantine for any reason have to suffer the consequences of loss of income unnecessarily, nor do we want any type of capricious behaviour where an employer will be submitted to long periods of absences for one or more of [their] employees.
“Not to mention the disruption to commerce and trade and, at the same time, having to carry the cost for that sick leave, so there has to be a balance struck and there has to be some type of shared burden.
“These are the matters that [both ministries] will have to look into from the standpoint of making a fair determination as to when there is certification of the Covid status of an individual that would cause the labour laws and labour practices to be fairly applied,” he explained.