By Geralyn Edward
As Barbados enters its fourth week of a national lockdown, designed to slow the alarming pace of COVID-19 infections on the island, a leading human resource professional, Brittany Brathwaite, says the pandemic has forever altered the workplace, and there may never be a return to the old way’ of working.
Brathwaite, president of the Barbados Human Resources Management Association of Barbados (HRMAB), has led the organisation representing over 200 human resource managers across every sector of economic activity, for the past two years. Her professional assessment is based on feedback from her colleagues and interaction with the island’s leading captains of industry.
The disruption caused by the deadly pandemic has been dramatic and far-reaching, and she believes that employers and employees who do not learn from this experience, may find themselves permanently displaced when this traumatic period is over.
Brathwaite, who has provided consultancy services for companies and sectors across the Caribbean in labour law and policy, and is a frequent commentator on labour issues, started her career with the Barbados Employers’ Confederation (BEC) at the age of 21. She provided advisory services to that organisation until she moved on in 2018, at age 26 to work in human resource (HR) management.
As she leads HRMAB through one of the most turbulent periods for workers and business operators, Brathwaite said her colleagues have been monitoring world events from early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began exploding in the United States and Europe.
“Some people were more prepared than others. A lot depended on the wherewithal of the organisation they worked with, and the company’s ability to quickly set up remote stations for employees,” she explained.
Like most Barbadians, Brathwaite was comforted by how well the island, in the early stages, had contained the spread of the viral illness and managed to care for those who contracted the disease. In the last quarter of 2020, companies that could facilitate the switch, moved a significant portion of their operations online to reduce employee and customer transmission risks. Some workers in the hospitality sector started to be re-engaged after months on layoff.
However, the situation with regards to infections, changed in the last month of 2020. According to the labour relation specialist: “December was the best example of how the dynamics of this disease shift so easily and the amount of ‘fire-fighting’ HR professionals have had to do.
“Everybody thought there was some light at the end of the tunnel and at that juncture. Lots of practitioners had exhausted the layoffs and the short-time procedures that [could be utilized as opposed to permanent job cuts]. Everybody was thinking ‘Praise the Lord’. And then, we were thrown right back into it [with COVID-19 spikes and subsequent national pause]. I think this has been quite a harrowing time for HR professionals,” she told COVID Weekly.
While not discounting what other professionals have been confronting, Brathwaite revealed: “We have had sessions with our membership and a lot of them are tired. HR professionals, like those on the front line, have had to deal with this disease. Our professionals have been on the frontline in organisations dealing with the management of people. And even though they are tired, they are also committed to doing the right thing, following the letter of the law as far as reasonably practical.”
The pandemic’s severe impact on the economy resulted in business closures and thousands of job losses. Consequently, those in management and specifically human resource managers took the brunt of criticism from workers about the way employees were treated.
Workers took to the streets in several demonstrations last year, demanding money due to them, including, in some instances, unpaid wages and salaries, dubious processes for instituting pay cuts, and unsatisfactory notification of dismissals.
She explained: “Some of the difficulties we saw last year in the news, occurred where persons’ employment ended, and many companies were not in a position to pay severance. The way how that unfolded also added to the pressure of what was happening [for] HR practitioners.”
The HR specialist said lack of communication was also at the heart of those disputes.
According to Brathwaite: “In the main, many of the issues we had last year have been resolved.”
She noted: “It has been a difficult time . . . . We have been trying to keep the information flowing on the things that will impact our workplaces. We have got the Minimum Wage Bill, [discrimination legislation], and lots of other developments coming, in addition to all that is going on with COVID-19. What I can tell you, is that our professionals are committed to doing the right thing.”
Part of that effort to “do the right thing” involves increased consultations between HRMAB’s members and the Ministry of Labour. Brathwaite said the Chief Labour Officer, Claudette Hope-Greenidge, continues to provide human resource professionals with direction on the correct way to address many of the employee-employer challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic.
“When we hear of trending topics like reductions in salaries that are being done poorly, or the handling of layoffs, we have that engagement with the Chief Labour Officer. As a result, we have seen a decline in the poor handling of those situations that we were seeing in the newspapers and hearing from the Labour Department,” Brathwaite shared.
The high level of joblessness caused by COVID-19 remains a major concern for HR practitioners, said Brathwaite, but she explained that feedback from her membership in the private sector, suggests that a sizeable portion of the 40 000-plus unemployment claims to the National Insurance Scheme (NIS), were for short-term layoffs and not permanent separations.
She added: “There are many employers who want to retain their staff, but the consumer market is just not there to help them generate the cash flow to continuously employ their people.”
The labour relations specialist told COVID Weekly she was very concerned about the pandemic’s impact on women in the workplace. And even more worrisome, the lack of statistics on what has been occurring on several fronts.
“We have a female-led society. I don’t think that is something anyone can debate. The percentage of households in which women are the primary breadwinners can be proven, so it is obvious that disproportionately, women would be heavily impacted. The thing we need to know is how long will this situation continue. The issues now go beyond the economic sphere and into the socio-economic sphere. Many women have been laid-off, placed on short time or had reductions in their salaries.”
Brathwaite lamented the dearth of statistics on how women have been affected by the pandemic in Barbados.
“I know that Government is busy fighting a lot of fires, but they have the Barbados Statistical Service that could possibly be doing a little more . . . . If female-led households are the ones being impacted most, then we need to know how we are going to adjust our national policies to ensure that these women are catered to. How are we going to get them back into the workforce; continuously upskill them; and know where the skills gaps exist, without the statistical data?”
One aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic that is inflicting harm on both genders, and every level of worker and management, is increased stress and anxiety. Brathwaite explained that while some companies are providing mental wellness services to workers who may be finding it difficult to cope, there was still a resistance to using the services.
In addition, with more workers increasingly concerned about retaining their jobs if the pandemic drags on for much longer, and the economic situation worsens, Brathwaite said employees and employers must find a way to grapple with the changing environment.
“Jobs will not disappear; they are going to look quite different. It is going to be less about job retention and more about job creation and job transformation.
“What we have normalised as full-time work will possibly have to change; as companies are going to look to engage people in different ways and that is likely to be the new norm.”
Brathwaite envisioned that a more “flexible workforce” that is engaged by multiple employers, may become the new employment landscape. She noted that with this transformation, it may be necessary to consider making self-employed persons eligible for some form of unemployment benefit.
“If you have a more flexible workforce, then you will have to create a social security system that treats to that more flexible workforce,” she argued.
As she puts it, COVID-19 has forever altered the workplace as people have come to expect it.
“It has forced people who always thought that work could only be performed within four walls, to recognise that this is not true. The pandemic also forced a lot of organisations into the 21st Century where they needed to be, where measuring performance is based on output and not based on presence.
She explained that many businesses have had to move quickly, and others are still trying to catch up when it comes to assessing the productivity of workers.
“I don’t think before COVID-19 that a lot of people accurately measured productivity in their workplaces because there was no real tracking of what people were doing and their output. It was more about seeing people being present at work.”
This article appears in the February 22 edition of COVID Weekly. Read the full publication here.