Faces of the jobless

Today’s budget communication will come against a backdrop of an unprecedented economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the finance minister will spend time outlining the government’s response, many Bahamians who wake up every day without any job — and without any prospect of employment — will be listening to hear of the government’s strategy to propel them beyond what feels for many to be a perpetual state of limbo worsened by broad uncertainties.

“It’s very scary because we don’t know how it’s going to play out,” said Anton Butler, a 24-year-old bartender of Fusion Superplex, which was among the first businesses in The Bahamas to lay off staff after a state of emergency was declared in March.

Fusion sent 350 employees home and its CEO Carlos Foulkes said the company was not in a position to meet payroll due to COVID-19.

Butler hasn’t worked since March 14.

“It started off pretty much rough,” he said.

“I thought it was only going to be about two weeks that we were going to be off and that turned into, as we see, two months.”

He said there are rumors that the company may not reopen.

However, that’s not his biggest concern at the moment.

“For the past three weeks, I have collected two NIB (National Insurance Board) contribution payments, so the burden hasn’t been so bad,” he said.

“But, it’s not much. It’s like a quarter of what I was making.

“So, right now, I’m trying to stretch the funds out so I can actually eat. The biggest concern is the bills afterward. You know, after sitting at home for about two to three months, maybe four, that’s three or four months’ worth of bills.

“Even if you were to go back to work, how much debt are you going to be in? So, that’s the other issue. That’s what makes it really scary.”

Kadejah Sands, 26, who works at Chances Games in Rock Sound, Eleuthera, stopped working around the same time as Butler.

Her last day at work was March 16.

Things have been challenging for Sands since then.

She said she is no longer able to enjoy small luxuries like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

“It has been a little rough keeping up with payments and stuff,” Sands said.

She has been able to stay afloat financially with the assistance of her side business, The Balloonista, a balloon company, and by making cheesecakes for people in the community.

However, despite having backup sources of income, Sands is ready to return to work.

“Honestly, I’ve been fed up with it,” she said.

“I’m ready to get back to work, get back to normal life. I don’t think that I can adjust to a life like this. I mean if I don’t have a choice I could. But, I still don’t want to get used to this kind of life.”

The pandemic has introduced a sad new reality for many in The Bahamas as many citizens and residents clutch onto the little they have as they await the reopening of the Bahamian economy, which came to a near halt when the state of emergency was declared.

Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis has said the national unemployment rate is expected to climb to 30 percent. Unemployment was at 9.5 percent when the Labour Force Survey was conducted last May.

Since 2000, The Bahamas’ national unemployment rate had not exceeded 14.52 percent.

The soaring unemployment rate is worrying to Jennifer Maycock, a 46-year-old resident of Port Nelson, Rum Cay.

“It’s not good at all,” Maycock said.

“Right now, unemployed means you’re not getting that monthly salary anymore and there isn’t anything on the island to do anyway, job-wise.”

She worked as a senior customer service representative for Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) on Rum Cay before it closed permanently on March 31.

Its closure wasn’t the result of the pandemic, she said.

“I’m somewhat worried but then, too, there isn’t really anything you can do,” Maycock said.

“It doesn’t make any sense going to Nassau because everything is basically closed there. So, right now, we don’t really have any options either way.”

She said she’s surviving off “the little savings I had”.

“I’m just taking it one day at a time,” she said.

‘It’s hell’

In March, when The Nassau Guardian spoke to some individuals employed in the tourism industry, they expressed fear of a looming economic “crisis”. Those fears were stemming from an announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump that major U.S. cruise lines will suspend outbound cruises.

The suspension was expected to last for 30 days.

However, two months later, some cruise lines are not scheduled to sail again until July or August.

James Francis, 56, a straw vendor, like many of his neighbors on the Berry Islands, hasn’t worked since February 13 — around the time reports of COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships began to surface.

“Most people here are impacted because almost 85 percent of the employment is on the cruise ships,” he said.

“At this time, they’re not having cruise ships. So, no one’s working. Nobody has any funds coming in. You’re actually depending on your friends and family in Nassau to put little things on the mailboat for you so you could have little food until everything opens back up.”

He said the economic impact isn’t “to the point where we gonna die”.

However, Francis added, that doesn’t mean the situation on the island is ideal.

“I don’t know how much longer I can survive without being able to work,” Francis told The Guardian.

“But, hopefully, this thing opens back up or the American government allows the cruise ships to come back right away.”

On March 18, while forecasting the impact of the pandemic on The Bahamas’ tourism industry, Tourism Minister Dionisio D’Aguilar said, “The simple, yet, inconceivable reality we all need to grasp is that there will be no tourists.”

His comments were echoed by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Peter Turnquest who predicted that the pandemic would result in at least $1 billion in losses over a four-month period.

In the weeks that followed, the government allocated just over $120 million to support the COVID-19 response over a three month period.

Food assistance and social service programs — including grants and loans for small businesses, cash assistance for the unemployed and payroll support for large employers — were funded by that allocation.

Despite applying for assistance, Edward Devitt Miller, 56, a resident of Bunches, Long Island, has yet to receive anything as of yesterday.

“It’s been like hell,” he said.

“It was hell. It still is hell because we haven’t received any payment yet or nothing yet from the government.”

Miller operated a taxi service at Cape Santa Maria Beach Resort in Stella Maris, Long Island, prior to the start of the pandemic.

He hasn’t had a customer since March 17.

Asked how he has been surviving, Miller replied, “How I’ve been making it? Catching crabs, doing a little construction in between times, mosquitoes biting, but no money’s coming in.”

‘Eye opener’

In late April, Minnis revealed a six-part phased reopening plan for The Bahamas.

He provided no timeline, however.

Three weeks later, he announced that the government was eyeing July 1 for the resumption of international air travel, which falls under the final phase of the reopening plan.

Deaniqua Sands, 28, a resident of Rock Sound, Eleuthera, who was laid off from her job at Odyssey Aviation on April 23, is eagerly awaiting July.

“Luckily, I’m able to return back to work as I am the only employee with Odyssey Aviation here on the island,” she said.

“I’m definitely going to be returning back to work but I’m just not sure when. We deal with international flights and passengers coming into the country.

“So, I think that’s going to be within the last stage when the government opens the borders. I can’t say when but I will have a job.”

Meanwhile, for Ana Johnson, a 38-year-old teacher at Christian Heritage School on New Providence, the pandemic has been a learning experience.

“It’s been an eye-opener,” Johnson, who was furloughed on March 14, told The Guardian.

“It was a life-changer. It made me really evaluate some things especially when it comes to saving and planning for times of crisis. Living from paycheck to paycheck when hard times hit, it doesn’t work.

“When schools closed in March, we got half salary. Being a single mother, I had to pay my rent and stuff like that and the funds were not there. It wasn’t enough. Then, having to go through NIB and then NIB stating that contributions and stuff weren’t made in time, that put us in limbo.”

Just how long this state of limbo will last is anyone’s guess.

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Jasper Ward

Jasper Ward started at The Nassau Guardian in September 2018. Ward covers a wide range of national and social issues. Education: Goldsmiths, University of London, MA in Race, Media and Social Justice

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