EHAS workers contest their dismissal by Minister Ottley

EHAS workers contest their dismissal by Minister Ottley

PHILIPSBURG--The lawyer of two of five workers at St. Maarten’s Electronic Health Authorization System (EHAS), whose employment was terminated by Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labor VSA Omar Ottley on Saturday, has summoned the minister to respect the permanent status of their employment, based on the Civil Code. Minister Ottley refused to do so and blocked the workers from the system.

Ottley received a letter on Thursday from the lawyer representing two of the longest-employed EHAS workers. “Upon expiration the labour agreements of my clients have been renewed three times, whereby they have kept working at least 40 hours a week during the entire period,” attorney Geert Hatzmann stated.
“The first extension (the second contract) ran from July 1, 2021, until December 31, 2021. The second extension (the third contract) ran from January 1, 2022, until June 30, 2022. Finally, the third extension, commencing on July 1, 2022, by law automatically converted the contemporary status of the labour agreements between the ministry and my clients to permanent full-time (40 hours a week) labour agreements.
“On September 9, 2022, you completely out-of-the-blue announced to my clients that their labour agreements would be terminated as of October 15, 2022, since the EHAS project that they were assigned to was going to be scaled down and eventually be terminated, and that as a consequence the service of my clients would become redundant.
“When you hit my clients with this dramatic announcement, you did not give them time to reflect on it and to discuss it with a legal advisor, but instead, while they were completely overwhelmed and shellshocked, you insisted that they had to sign a statement of agreement to mutually terminate the labour agreement. This action of yours constitutes a serious violation of the principles of good employer-ship and has to be deemed both unethical and unlawful.”
The lawyer informed Ottley that both clients “do most definitely not agree with the termination of their labour agreements and remain available for work.”
When they tried to continue to work after October 15, the Public Health officers discovered that they had been logged out and blocked from the system.
The dismissed workers are part of a group of 12 Public Health officers who have been employed by the government since the start of EHAS. After completing three subsequent short-term contracts, the government continued to call on them to work. Some of them started when Ottley’s predecessor Richard Panneflek was still Minister of VSA.
The 12 long-term workers want to continue working for the government until the end of EHAS and then, or earlier, transfer to the Inspectorate of VSA, Inspectorate of the Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT) or another suitable position within the government.
They content that, while they know that EHAS is to be scaled down, the minister did not apply the rule of “last in, first out”, but instead refused persons who are legally entitled to permanent employment access to work.
In an interview on SOS Radio on Friday, October 7, radio host Billy D asked Ottley what the EHAS workers expect. “What do they want?” he asked, to which Ottley replied: “I don’t know.”
Prior to the question, Ottley explained to Billy D that EHAS was a project born out of emergency, related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and every worker knew that it was temporary.
“What I get now, ironically, a lot of calls from the same workers – a lot of workers are saying, ‘Minister, we are grateful, minister, we are thankful for the opportunity that was provided.’ Because a lot of these people were fired during COVID, they had no job during COVID, but, ironically, again, I did not see no articles from them about that employer. You know, these were opportunities to help persons. And I am grateful for them, each and every one of them,” Ottley said. “But we knew it was a project.”
The EHAS staff grew under Ottley to a group of 30 workers, the last eight of whom were hired in June this year. There are five booths at the airport, not enough to accommodate all the EHAS employees, so the majority work from home, on the island or from abroad.
The Daily Herald understands from documents supplied to this newspaper that Ottley hired his cousin S.C. to run the project on his behalf, and employed several family members, including one first-degree and two second-degree blood relations, as well as a niece and an aunt, apart from some close friends. These were all hired after the now-unemployed Public Health officers were already working on the project.
Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs explained in the press briefing of Wednesday, October 12, that ministers are not allowed to sign labour agreements with first- and second-degree blood relations. Ottley may have asked one or more of the other members of the Council of Ministers to sign for his close blood relations to be hired at EHAS.

The Daily Herald

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