Coronavirus a beta test of business continuity for Jamaica - SSL first to go fully virtual

Finnce Minister Nigel Clarke

It’s a boutique firm in the middle of a reorganisation to address its vulnerabilities.

So, it wasn’t surprising that Stocks & Securities Limited, SSL, took the unprecedented step of having all its ­employees work from home, starting Monday, a move that so far appears ­unmatched by others in its totality.

They made their decision even before the Ministry of Labour began urging employers to start implementing flexi-work ­arrangements, as a containment measure against the workplace spread of the coronavirus, and to protect their customers.

SSL is an investment firm with a relatively small staff, so it would have less of a logistical challenge to implement a full work-from-home programme than, say, large telecoms provider FLOW Jamaica, which announced Thursday that four persons have been asked to work from home, while a ­technician was quarantined for monitoring and testing.

Like FLOW, other firms appear to making the decision about who works from satellite locations, or are simply sent home, on the basis of whether they may have come into contact, directly or indirectly, with infected persons, or those who have been quarantined and awaiting test results.

Scotiabank, for example, closed its New Kingston branch on Thursday after learning that a confirmed COVID-19 patient visited there and interacted with staff. Those persons were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Rum maker J. Wray & Nephew shut down for a day after learning one of its contract workers came into close contact with the first person in Jamaica to test positive for the COVID-19 virus.

Events are being postponed, ­including the annual Expo Jamaica, an event that was ­expected to generate spending of $200 ­million on goods and services.

Many businesses are guided by continuity plans that basically lay out how to keep their operations humming with limited people and other resources, in periods of crisis.

SSL Group CEO Zachary Harding described the work-from-home plan as a voluntary beta test of its business continuity policy.

“We have been tracking the international market conditions since the beginning of this global crisis, and have done a deep dive to assess the inherent risks for the market and for SSL. As a result of this comprehensive analysis, along with current regulations, we have incorporated new data protection measures into the work-from-home initiative. Importantly, we have also put solid measures in place to ­protect the company, our clients and our revenues,” Harding said in a statement released by the ­company on Wednesday night.

The confirmation of ­coronavirus cases in Jamaica has overtaken the news cycle, at a time when Jamaicans would normally have been primarily focused on the Budget, especially in light of the $18 billion of tax cuts announced Tuesday by Finance Minister Nigel Clarke.

SUFFICIENT BUFFER

The minister has had to be ­defending the decision, given that the extent of the financial and economic fallout from the virus remains unknown. Clarke insists the country now has a ­sufficient fiscal buffer, some flowing from the intake from the IPOs of Wigton Windfarm and TransJamaican Highway.

If the crisis requires the Government to act, he said Thursday at a press conference, it had the capacity to add more funds to the current contingency budget of $7 billion, if needed.

The Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica, the primary voice of corporate Jamaica, has reacted positively to the budget, saying it was “comfortable that it should positively enhance the business climate and increase confidence in very uncertain times exacerbated by the local presence of COVID-19”.

The tax giveback includes a 1.5 point reduction in GCT to 15 per cent; a 50 per cent reduction in the asset tax paid by regulated firms, from a rate of 0.25 per cent to 0.125 per cent; and an income tax credit for small companies that make less than $500 million in revenue annually.

That package is to be voted on at the close of the Budget Debate by lawmakers, and, if passed, is scheduled to take effect on April 1.

In the meantime, the Young Entrepreneurs Association (YEA), whose membership if for business owners under the age of 46, is already feeling financial effects of the coronavirus and looking to the Government and lenders for concessions.

“Our members have already begun experiencing ­reduced ­demand for some of the products and services. The shutdown of many supply chains out of Asia is also expected to significantly impact our members’ ability to secure some of the inputs and raw materials needed, and prices are expected to escalate rapidly,” the YEA said in a statement.

It has since called for a slash in interest rates, payment holidays and moratoriums, during this ­period, from the financial ­institutions and utility companies. It is also calling for the Government to consider grants to provide financial reprieves and encouraged the production of goods that may become short in supply, such as toiletries and sanitation products.

In the meantime, the YEA has advised its members to implement helplines, online platforms and other remote customer service facilities where possible, as precautionary measures against the spread of the virus.

The PSOJ, meanwhile, is cognisant of the vulnerable positions that some businesses have found themselves in.

“There are active discussions now taking place between the Jamaica Bankers’ Association, and financial institutions and business associations are also meeting to see how best to deal with the situation,” Keith Duncan, the president of the PSOJ, and CEO of financial conglomerate JMMB Group Limited, told the Financial Gleaner.

The number of coronavirus cases globally now tops 133,000, and was approaching 5,000 deaths. Jamaica was the fourth Caribbean country to have confirmed the virus, behind Dominica Republic, St Martin and St Barthelemy. Cases in the region have since been identified in Guyana, St Vincent & the Grenadines, and, most recently, Cuba.

 

Published on Friday | March 13, 2020 on the Jamaica Gleaner Online