Trouble in paradise

Lower-than-usual occupancy rates at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman have significantly reduced staff working hours – and therefore earnings – making it difficult for the hotel’s employees.

ritz in trouble

Occupancy at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is down this tourism high season as a result of a decline in group business, making it difficult for the hotel’s staff to get enough working hours. This photo, taken Monday morning, shows plenty of empty seats at the Ritz-Carlton beach.
Photo: Jewel Levy

In response to questions submitted in writing, Ritz-Carlton Public Relations Director Melissa Ladley acknowledge total occupancy at the hotel is down, although she did not give specific percentages.

‘This is owing to the severe impact the US economy and the ‘AIG effect’ has had on group business, the vast majority of which originates in North America,’ she said. ‘We are fortunate that our leisure business is actually growing compared to 2008, but this does not offset the losses in group travel.’

The drop-off in occupancy has meant a significant reduction in hours for the Ritz staff.

‘We schedule staff to meet demand of occupancy week to week,’ said Mrs. Ladley.

The reduction has caused some employees to leave the company, while others have stayed on, working sometimes only two days per week.

In October, which was a particularly bad month for occupancy, some Ritz-Carlton employees worked less than 45 hours for the entire month. Hours were better during the Christmas holiday period, but fell off again in January.

The issues with staff have occurred even though the Ritz-Carlton did not hire as many seasonal workers for this high season.

‘When forecasts indicated our occupancy would be affected by economic factors, we began to limit seasonal hires,’ said Mrs. Ladley.

The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman is the second largest employer in the Cayman Islands, behind only the government, with more than 800 employees. In spite of the problem finding hours for some of its employees, the Ritz hasn’t laid off any of its staff.

‘We are allowing natural attrition to run its course,’ said Mrs. Ladley. ‘As employees’ work permits expire and they choose to leave the island or work elsewhere, we are not filling selected positions. We are also working with employees on a case-by-case basis to release them from permits if they request it, or offer split permits with other employers.’

Giving full-time employees less than full-time work is not a violation of the Immigration Law or the Labour Law.

Chief Immigration Officer Franz Manderson, who in a recent interview with the Caymanian Compass said the Immigration Department was going to crack down on employers that engage work permit holders for full-time work when they don’t have full-time work to give them, said the issue at the Ritz-Carlton was not what he was talking about.

‘I was talking about employers who never really had full-time work to offer in the first place,’ he said. ‘If you have a case where there was full-time work and then there’s a slow-down in business so that the employee can’t get full-time work anymore, then normally the employees have to make a determination if they’re willing to continue on with the employer or be employed elsewhere.’

Employees that are not getting enough hours who wish to seek work on the Island elsewhere can do so, even though the Immigration Law generally prohibits work permit holders form changing jobs during the course of a valid work permit, Mr. Manderson said.

‘If you can prove your current employer is not giving you enough hours, it’s one of the reasons in the Immigration Law to allow job-hopping,’ he said.

Another option for the employee is a split work-permit whereby the employee works for more than one employer. These work permits require the permission of the primary employer and it is something Mrs. Ladley said the Ritz-Carlton is allowing.

Split permits must be approved by the proper Immigration board – in the Ritz’s case, the Business Staffing Plan Board – before the employee can work for the second employer. However, Mr. Manderson said these applications are looked on favourably by the boards.

‘They have a very high approval rate,’ he said. ‘It makes sense – we would rather use the labour force that is already here rather than bring someone new on the island.’

In the meantime, the Ritz does what it can to help its employees survive financially, Mrs. Ladley said.

‘Employment at The Ritz-Carlton involves certain benefits that offset normal costs of living such as food and laundry,’ she said. ‘Each uniformed employee receives a fresh laundered and ironed uniform for each shift. Ladies and gentlemen are also allowed to eat in our employee dining room while in uniform – and this food is good!’

Lateral service prohibited

Another factor hindering the Ritz-Carlton’s hiring efficiencies is that it cannot use lateral service here as it does in other jurisdictions where it operates. Lateral service is a policy whereby Ritz-Carlton employees are encouraged to work, in addition to their primary job, in other departments at the hotel, or in different positions within their own department.

Former Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman General Manager Jean Cohen spoke about the practice in an interview in December 2007.

‘Every Ritz-Carlton in the world utilizes a lateral service concept to ensure world-class service to our guests,’ she said. ‘Lateral service promotes teamwork within departments to assist both co-workers and our guests.’

The lateral service policy allows employees to learn and try different aspects of work inside the hotel, but it also gives the Ritz flexibility to cover special events or staff illnesses without missing a beat.

‘On occasion, assistance is needed in different areas, such as an event that needs moving inside because of rain or to help in another area of the host department,’ Mrs. Cohen said.

Mrs. Ladley said lateral service, at its core, allowed the hotel to deliver superior guest services. However, she said it would also allow the hotel to run its operations more efficiently and help ensure employees got sufficient working hours.

‘It would allow us to employ fewer work permit holders as well as offer our employees more opportunities for development and [to explore] more aspects of the hospitality industry,’ she said. ‘Both of these factors would increase hours.’

As of December 2007, the Ritz-Carlton was applying a lateral service policy to all of its employees, Mrs. Cohen said.

‘To facilitate this, we operate with a wide variety of work permits, some very specific such as massage therapist or cook and some generic permits such as food and beverage server, food and beverage employee and rooms division employee,’ she said.

‘This would allow employees to work in multiple positions within the department. A large number of our ex-patriot employees have permits with dual titles.’

However, the generic type of lateral service isn’t allowed in the Cayman Islands because of restrictions in the Immigration Law, Mr. Manderson said.

‘Work permit holders are restricted to engaging in the occupation named on their work permit,’ he said. ‘Employers must provide the specific occupation of the worker. I am not aware of any cases where we have issued work permits for generic titles/occupations.’

Mr. Manderson did agree that issuance of dual permits for two specific job titles was permissible and that it was one way the Ritz-Carlton could manage the fact that some of its employees were not getting enough hours.

‘Employers can apply to amend a work permit to include additional occupations,’ he said. ‘An employer can ask the boards to grant an employee more than one occupation, for example bellman/waiter. The application can be granted if they are no Caymanians available.’

In cases where such a work permit is granted, the employer pays only one work permit fee, that which is applicable to the position that has the higher fee.

The Ritz-Carlton could apply to the Business Staffing Plan Board to amend work permits already in place for staff to include additional job titles. However, Mr. Manderson said he and the Business Staffing Plan Board would have to be satisfied no Caymanians would be disadvantaged by the amendments.

Mrs. Ladley said Caymanians would not be affected by even a liberal lateral service policy, if it were allowed here.

‘It would not affect our employment of Caymanians,’ she said. ‘The development of our Caymanian ladies and gentlemen through our established programmes including Hospitality in Training, Manager in Training, Tourism Apprentices and Mentoring continues to be a top priority.

‘We continually seek to recruit and develop talented Caymanians,’ she added. ‘Currently 23 per cent of our staff is Caymanian, which is quite competitive for the tourism industry in Cayman.’

Despite the slowdown in business and the problem with giving some of its employees enough hours, the Ritz-Carlton is still hiring Caymanians, Mrs. Ladley said.

‘In fact, we had a new Caymanian Manager in Training start working in the Sales and Marketing department on 12 January,’ she said. ‘And we have two Caymanian employees starting in Silver Rain, a La Prairie Spa, in February.’