A much larger number of work permit applications than a year ago are being handled by a reduced Immigration Department staff, leading to longer-than-usual delays in acquiring permission to work for non-Caymanians.
According to figures given to the Cayman Compass late last week, 18,847 work permit applications were submitted to the department between Jan. 1 and July 31. Those applications do not only include annual permit grants and renewals, but cover a wide range of temporary permits, work permit extensions, special economic zone permits and amendments to business staffing plans.
The Immigration Department reported that roughly the same number of permit applications were processed for all of 2016.
The processing, which can depend on the specific details of each case, is taking between six and 10 weeks, on average, according to private sector firms that assist businesses with work permit applications. The Immigration Department’s stated goal is have a permit “turned around” in 14 days once an application is received. More than 1,700 of the 2017 permit applications remained to be processed as of last week.
“[That number] represents approximately six weeks of decisions,” a statement from the department noted. That figure does not factor in any permit applications submitted during the next six weeks.
As of mid-July, there were 24,880 active work permits in the Cayman Islands, including government contracts and individuals awaiting word on permanent residence applications.
The Immigration Department is also struggling with an administrative staff shortage, according to statements made last week.
“The [department] has 11 vacant positions in the permanent residence and work permit processing section and the department has made positive progress in recruiting qualified personnel for most of those vacancies within the last few weeks,” responses sent to Cayman Compass questions stated.
That number of vacancies represents about one-third of the people designated to handle permit applications within the Immigration Department, officials said Monday.
Premier Alden McLaughlin’s office reported that five full-time and one part-time immigration staff worker were hired last month to deal with a backlog of 1,100 permanent residence applications. Those are separate from work permits.
The pension ‘exodus’
Managers in Cayman’s tourism sector publicly discussed fears of “skyrocketing turnover” after a law passed by the previous government set a cut-off date for when private sector workers can receive cash refunds from their retirement accounts.
The cut-off date depends on when an employer makes the final pension contribution payment into a workers account and, according to hospitality sector managers, will encourage many workers to leave Cayman to collect money already saved in those accounts.
Changes made last year to the National Pensions Law prevent workers from receiving cash refunds from their pension accounts after December 2019. In order to receive such a refund under the current pensions scheme, the employee must have stopped making contributions to the retirement fund for at least two years and must also have left the islands for at least six months. That means, to collect the refund, most workers would have to quit their current job and have made their final pension contribution as of Dec. 30, 2017.
The Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce has estimated some 2,500 workers will leave the islands to collect their pensions, leaving a void in the jobs market that cannot be filled even if all currently unemployed Caymanians – 1,406 as of October 2016 – were hired for those positions.
A significant number of the jobs will likely have to be filled by foreign workers, a process that is now taking between six and 10 weeks, including a large part of the peak tourist season in the islands.
“Recruitment will be your biggest battle,” said Valerie Hoppe, human resources manager at the Marriott Beach Resort told employers in December. “If you’re a large employer … you may be looking at upwards of 80-100 people leaving.”
About 43 percent of the work permit applications so far this year are for temporary workers – those whose working permission is usually limited to three, six or nine months.
More than 8,000 temporary permit applications have been submitted since January, immigration officials said, giving no reason why so many of those permits have been sought.
Another 1,200 permits have been issued to extend those temporary work licenses.
Full year work permits processed so far this year include about 7,500 permit grants or renewals, usually given to full-time non-Caymanian workers planning to stay here for a specific contract period.