Government to pay wages in back-to-work project

$1.7m released for employment program

Government will pay up to the first six months’ salary for new workers taken on by private businesses in a new back-to-work scheme for the unemployed.

Premier Alden McLaughlin said the measure is being taken as an incentive for companies to take a chance on jobless Caymanians.

Mr. McLaughlin said $1.7 million from the Labour Department budget has been allocated for the “Ready2Work Cayman” program, which begins in February.

A list of 245 people will be pulled from the National Workforce Development Agency files for the program. They will undergo an assessment and job skills training before being matched with opportunities in the private sector.

An Employment Task Force, headed by Premier McLaughlin and involving representatives from key industries including tourism, financial services and construction, will steer the process.

Mr. McLaughlin said government would provide a support network for the employees and pay them in the early months of their employment. He said the companies would still have to invest in training for the new employees.

“The object is not for us to pay them long term but to get to the point where businesses are glad to have them and happy to pay them,” the premier said. He acknowledged that even with substantial support and financial assistance, some employees would not work out. But he said government is committed to supporting them and paying their wages for a trial period of up to six months. He said the project would help employers and workers through any issues that arise.

“What we are trying to do is minimize the financial risk for the businesses and build a support system so if John Brown doesn’t show up at work, it is the project coordinator’s responsibility to find out what is going wrong and to get him through what is preventing him from working,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “There will be different levels of effort and intervention required with each individual.”

He said the project should deal with some of the concerns highlighted by the business community and help transition a substantial number of unemployed people back to work.

“My hope is that by the end of it we will have a significant number of them in full-time employment,” he said. The premier, who acknowledged in his New Year’s address that dealing with Caymanian unemployment was the Achilles’ heel of his administration, said the government is tackling the issue head-on.

“We’ve delivered on everything except this,” he said. “The increase in work permits is a good sign that the economy is doing well, but the number of Caymanians unemployed is not falling fast enough.”

He said the number of employees who turned out for a Christmas work program had brought the issue into sharper focus. “When I saw those stats in October, I made a real push then to take a greater personal involvement and give it the push it needs,” he said.

He confirmed that he originally had chosen independent legislator Winston Connolly to lead the task force, but then took on the role himself as Mr. Connolly had also been put forward to lead a national energy review. Mr. McLaughlin said he plans to appoint a co-chair from the private sector.

Mr. Connolly, who announced Monday that he would no longer be part of the government caucus nor remain as a government ministry councillor, said last week that he turned down the chairmanship of the Employment Task Force, partly due to other responsibilities and partly out of deference to Premier McLaughlin.

“I felt he, as minister [with responsibility for] immigration and leader of the country, should be the person in charge of that task force to give it the necessary gravitas and importance he has placed on it,” Mr. Connolly said.

Mr. Connolly, who was recently named chairman of the National Energy Policy review committee, indicated last week he could not “do both.” In light of his announcement Monday, it was not immediately clear whether he would remain as chairman of the energy policy committee.

It was Mr. Connolly’s private members’ motion of 2014 that led to what he termed the “carrot” approach being adopted by government with regard to private companies hiring Caymanian workers.

His initial proposal was to segregate a certain percentage of work permit fees – he put the figure at 10 percent of annual revenues from that source – paid to government to employ expatriate workers into a fund used to train and “up-skill” Caymanian workers.

Another goal, according to his 2014 motion, was to “incentivize employers by supplementing salaries of locals [who are] training for employment.”

At the time, Finance Minister Marco Archer noted that siphoning 10 percent of the annual work permit fees paid into government’s budget would cost more than $7 million per year.

Brent Fuller contributed reporting.