Can HIV-positive people obtain work permits? Government tight-lipped on matter

There has been a long-standing policy in Cayman of denying work permits to people with HIV, but that policy may have changed behind closed doors at some point within the last several years.

The issue was initially raised in a Public Accounts Committee hearing in January, when PAC Chairman Ezzard Miller asked Health Ministry Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn whether government had changed its policy towards granting work permits to the HIV afflicted. Ahearn responded that she believed the policy has indeed changed, but that she would need to check and provide an answer at a later time.

“My understanding through some of the discussions that we have had over the years with Immigration is that that was changing – [the] policy was changing. But I’d need to check with Immigration and report back.”

Health Ministry Chief Officer Jennifer Ahearn

Since then, the Cayman Compass has made numerous inquiries about the issue, and has yet to receive a definitive answer as to whether government has a policy on the issuance of work permits to HIV-positive people.

The Ministry of Health stated on Monday that it does not recommend for people with HIV be denied work permits, but that the decision is ultimately made by the Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman (WORC) Department, which does not have a written policy on the matter. Immigration officials did not respond to Compass inquiries.

With no explicit policy and multiple questions unanswered, those with HIV remain in limbo as to whether they can come here and work.

Cayman AIDS Foundation CEO Noel Cayasso-Smith said he’s been trying to find out government’s HIV work permit policy for about four years, with no luck. When Cayasso-Smith receives questions from HIV-positive people living abroad about coming here, he does not know what to tell them.

“We’ve been getting a lot of emails from people overseas asking if they can apply for work permits. I just don’t have any clear information to give anyone,” Cayasso-Smith said. “It’s really frustrating because it would be good to know ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and what the criteria is to get in if the law has been changed.”

At a Jan. 17 PAC hearing, Miller sought an answer to the question Cayasso-Smith has been asking for years.

“There was a policy in place for many, many years that people who were HIV positive were not given a work permit,” said Miller. “Has that policy changed?”

Ahearn responded that the policy may have changed, but that she did not know for sure.

“My understanding through some of the discussions that we have had over the years with Immigration is that that was changing – [the] policy was changing,” she said at the hearing. “But I’d need to check with Immigration and report back.”

Four days after the PAC hearing, the Compass wrote to Ahearn and Immigration Chief Officer Wesley Howell, seeking an answer to Miller’s initial question. Neither chief officer responded.

In March, the Compass again wrote to Howell and Ahearn about government’s HIV work permit policy. This time, a response was received from a Government Information Services officer, who said the Ministry of Immigration was collecting information to answer questions about the matter.

After several more email exchanges, government still did not issue any information about its HIV work permit policy. One information officer said that since the question was initially asked in a PAC hearing, government will have to provide the information to PAC members before the public can be notified. However, multiple PAC hearings have taken place since Miller asked his original question, and no information has been made public.

The Compass informed officials last week that it would report on government’s silence on the matter, and received the following response from the Ministry of Health on Monday afternoon: “The Workforce Opportunities and Residency Cayman (WORC) Department is the agency with responsibility to review work and residency applications, which are accompanied by a medical questionnaire. If an applicant is found to have tested positive for a communicable disease, the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) is contacted. The MOH further advises that although HIV is a communicable disease, refusal of an application based on public health risk of transmission is not advisable. WORC has no written policy in this regard.

“Persons who are tested HIV positive must prove that their private medical insurance, not CINICO, will cover all HIV-related costs. WORC’s policy is to review each application on a case-by-case basis in consultation with the MOH in order to make a decision.”

Premier Alden McLaughlin – whose portfolio includes Immigration – did not respond to media inquiries about the matter.

Miller told the Compass Monday that “some information” had been made available to the PAC, and that the information will be made public after the next PAC hearing, which is scheduled for Tuesday.

When government failed to publish details on its permanent residency policies, Ombudsman Sandy Hermiston ruled in February that the failure was a contravention of the Freedom of Information Law.

In that case, the applicant asked the Department of Immigration whether there were any policies that are in use relating to applications for permanent residency, but did not receive a response. Hermiston found that the department failed to respond to requests within the time limit established by the FOI Law.

“Members of the public have a reasonable expectation that policies, procedures and guidelines that steer decisions of public authorities be made publicly available,” Hermiston stated in her ruling. “This is particularly true when their decisions have the potential to greatly affect the lives and livelihoods of individuals, such as the Department’s decisions under the Immigration Law.”