PHILIPSBURG--Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labour VSA Omar Ottley has twelve of thirty public health officers who are managing the Electronic Health Authorization System (EHAS) currently working without a contract, after they completed three consecutive six-month contracts earlier this year.
Although legally qualifying for tenured appointment, these public health officers work as “freelancers” while assigned more hours than allowed based on St. Maarten labour law and are working without sickness insurance or other benefits since starting with EHAS.
Ottley has failed to respond to questions from The Daily Herald sent to his official
@sintmaartengov.org email address on Sunday. In Ottley’s absence at the September 28 Council of Ministers’ press briefing, questions were directed to Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs.
“Unfortunately, I do not have an answer,” replied Jacobs. “The Minister of Public Health, Social Development and Labour would be the best person to answer on that. I know for sure the whole EHAS came out of the emergency, it was not something we had planned FTEs [fulltime equivalents – Ed.] for.
“For those that don’t understand what FTEs is – all budget is based on a set number of persons that you are allowed to hire. We did have a disaster budget, of which we transferred a whole amount based on dealing with the COVID situation. I can’t tell you off the top of my head what that was, but it was deemed necessary to ensure the health and safety of our population to have these persons work temporarily.”
A week before the press briefing, on September 22, Ottley announced that EHAS is slated to end March 2023. “Not knowing the extent of COVID-19 and its impact on the nation, the project was requested to have a lifespan of two years and possible extension for an additional year,” Ottley said in a press release.
He also reiterated that COVID-19 insurance will no longer be mandatory for travellers into St. Maarten as of October 15. “We would like for this to be optional for our travellers,” said Ottley.
As of October 15, residents of St. Maarten will no longer be required to test on entry, regardless of their vaccination status. However, they will still be required to fill out the EHAS application for data purposes.
The project started under former VSA Minister Richard Panneflek. Some of the 30 public health officers who now work for Minister Ottley signed their first contract with Minister Panneflek.
The contract reads: “The Agreement for Professional Service by and between the Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labour, located at Soualiga Road 1, Pond Island, Philipsburg, St. Maarten, hereafter referred to as the ‘Government of St. Maarten’ (the Employer) and [name of employee], public health officer, […] in consideration of the mutual covenants set forth herein and intended to be legally bound, the parties hereto agree as follows: Art. 1.1 [name of the employee] shall provide the following to the employer: On-call services.”
As per art 1.2.1 the employer is obligated to call the employee when the on-call labour is required as stipulated in this agreement in article 1. And in art. 1.2.2 the employee is obliged to respond to the request of or on behalf of the employer.
Art. 3 states that the employee will be paid the amount of NAf. 20.00 per hour based on a minimum of zero hours and a maximum of 40 hours per week.
The contract further contains an exemption clause: “With this appointment, you will not participate in the group pension scheme of the employer. In addition, you will not qualify for health and accident insurance. All applicable taxes to be paid will be for your own account.”
Employees interviewed by The Daily Herald explained that the Electronic Health Authorization System opens at 8:00am and closes at 11:00pm. They said Ottley had demanded that they to be on call for the duration of the period the system can be accessed, resulting in the officers being on call from morning until late at night and often effectively working more than the legal maximum of 50 hours per week. This is evidenced by monthly receipts showing payment for more than 200 hours worked.
According to employees, the actual number of hours worked is considerably higher. They said they had repeatedly complained to Ottley that the receipts do not reflect the service they provide. “We were told that there is not enough money to pay us in full,” said a worker. “We don’t get a pay slip. At the ministry, they just choose a number of hours to pay out and then give us a receipt. We are being taken advantage of, but what can you do? We all need our job.”
After working three times six months in a row without intervals, the persons concerned had been offered the prospect of extending their contracts for the third time.
“When I heard that I would get another contract, I thought this meant I would become permanent,” said one of them. “I was very happy, but they kept stalling, and then I realised that I was being led on.”
The fourth contract has not been handed over to date, although the employees have been called to continue working, as evidenced by their receipts.
Just last week five of the 12 longest-employed persons were called in for a meeting at the VSA Ministry, where they were told individually by two fellow EHAS employees that they will be no longer called to work as of October 15.
“How can they present us with a dismissal letter and we haven’t even been handed a contract yet?” asked one of the workers, who refused to sign for mutual consent. “It has everybody stressed. Depressed. Because you don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. You don’t do that, government, especially the Ministry of Labour. This is madness.”
The “abuse of short-term contracts and revolving-door problem” were the subject of a public meeting of Parliament on September 2, 2022, at the request of Member of Parliament George Pantophlet (National Alliance), for Ottley was called in.
“I am very happy to see the minister and his staff here today, because the fact is, we have had many meetings prior to this and I am happy to see that this minister has now taken it up along with his staff to continue and show this lobby becomes a reality,” said Pantophlet, indicating that the intention is to create job security for employees in St. Maarten.
Ottley started his presentation complaining about empty seats in Parliament. “I really hope it is lunch time, I see a lot of empty seats here, as this topic is a very, very important topic many of us campaign on year-in year-out.”
He went on to give a presentation of the status of the amendment to the ordinance regulating short-term labour contracts. He pointed out that Parliament had approved draft legislation Book 7, Title 10 of Civil Code in 2019, and announced the new law would go into effect on October 1, 2022.
Ottley defined “abuse” as employers giving more than three consecutive fixed-term contracts and/or using loopholes in the legislation to avoid permanency by sending employees home for three months and a day after their third contract and then rehiring them.
In the case of the 12 longstanding EHAS employees, the government did not send them home after their third contracts, but kept calling them to work during the following months. Moreover, since June this year, Ottley hired three new public health officers to work at the airport and five new employees to do review forms submitted to EHAS, working remotely from home or abroad.