Parliament’s Finance Committee has approved $27.5 million in additional funds to continue the payment of a stipend to displaced tourism workers until the end of the year.
The previous government had obtained supplementary funding outside of the regular budget to extend the tourism stipend through June.
Currently, 3,471 people are receiving the monthly $1,500 payment. Another 441, who missed the first deadline, have applied for the stipend and these applications are still under review.
Government plans to cut the tourism stipend in half in November and December, as it expects the tourism industry to pick up activity by then.
Opposition members requested the total extra funding to be upped to $40 million so that the stipend could be increased to $2,000 for each month until the end of 2021, including November and December.
Moses Kirkconnell, the MP for Cayman Brac West, said that extra money would be used locally and the multiplier effect of those funds would be five times greater for the local economy than the amount spent.
Tourism Minister Kenneth Bryan rejected the proposed increase stating that in combination with the other government programmes – including free food for all children in government schools, the Stingray City Feeding Programme, extension of health insurance benefits, business grants and certain fee waivers – the “current $1,500 mark should be sufficient to assist persons going through this”.
The tourism minister suggested that the local economic situation was slowly improving and not everyone who received the stipend had no income at all.
Bryan said when the stipend was created, people simply had to demonstrate that they worked in tourism at the time and had been affected by the pandemic.
There is still no needs assessment or criteria verifying if stipend recipients are working again. The lack of a more thorough vetting process meant that it was difficult to tell “who is truly deserving of the stipend”.
Bryan said he had received the results of a survey, to be released this week, which show that some people now have full-time work and are still receiving the stipend. “Should I increase the money to $2,000 for those individuals?” he asked.
He said the survey indicated that 35% of stipend recipients are back to working five hours a day and 74% are working 30 hours or less per week.
At the same time, there were some who are not making any money at all.
He said government is in the process of examining who is in need of the stipend and committed “to ensure that those in need will get” and “those who are back to work can genuinely say ‘I am going to step back, I don’t need that money any more’”.
“If we find that people need more, we will give them more,” Bryan added.
Tourism boost expected in October
The tourism minister explained that the cut of the stipend to $750 a month in November is based on government’s belief that, in line with its reopening plan, the tourism industry should receive a major boost from October, as reservations are at an all-time high.
“So, we suspect that people will be back to work,” Bryan said. He added that government had spoken to industry stakeholders to focus on the tourism stipend recipients first, in their hiring efforts.
At the same time, government was ensuring that work permits will not be approved in areas where Caymanians are readily available.
He said, the $1,500 stipend should be able to assist Caymanians to get to the “magical date” for the resurgence of tourism that the Department and the Ministry of Tourism believe will be 14 Oct., when vaccinated travellers will no longer have to quarantine.
Opposition MP for Red Bay, Alden McLaughlin, questioned whether this timeline was achievable given that government plans were contingent on an 80% vaccination rate in Cayman and the only other jurisdiction in the world that has achieved that rate is Gibraltar.
Bryan said government remained positive on reaching the 80% threshold and hoped that the Opposition would support the government in getting more people vaccinated.
André Ebanks, the minister for commerce, announced that outside of the tourism stipend, government is developing another $2 million programme for tour operators who are heavily leveraged against their assets.
The programme is geared towards supporting tour operators who have boats, jet skis, horses or buses, to make sure they are able to maintain their assets and be prepared for the reopening of tourism.
Finance Committee also approved $2 million in funding for the small business grant programme.