Carlos Saavedra, secretary of Labor. (Xavier J. Araújo Berríos)

The bill that Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares sent to the Legislature to establish at-will employment in Puerto Rico appears to be more restrictive for workers than the bill that the Oversight Board initially presented to the Legislative Branch.

Although these are two different measures and the Board sought to eliminate multiple benefits, the bill offered a broader view on the labor issue on the Island. Now, the bill the House is examining would close the door even more to private sector workers, because it does not apply to public employment.

According to Natalia Colón Díaz, president of the Puerto Rico Association of Labor Relations Professionals (APRL, Spanish acronym), the agreement between the Board and the Governor left the possibility of improving the wage situation of Puerto Rican workers out.

Colón Díaz regretted that the complex employer-employee relationship has been reduced to the issue of unjust dismissal and the at-will employment doctrine, without understanding its implications.

Last month, the Board sent its labor reform bill to the Legislature, a piece filed by Senate petition under number 919.

The bill was rejected by the Legislature because it reduced vacation and sick leave, made the Christmas bonus into at-employer´s discretion benefit and reduced to one year the period to sue an employer in case of reprisals. But it included raising the minimum wage, although subject to increase in the labor force.

The validity of that project was immediate. After the agreement between Rosselló Nevares and the Board, only repealing Law 80 remained from that proposal.

Two versions

But the Board's proposal on that issue - rejected by the Legislature - would have given more space to judicial interpretation, according to Colón Díaz.

Bill 919 established the at-will employment doctrine and indicated that the employee´s right "to obtain a relief for damages for tortuous actions by the employer unrelated to the mere termination of employment or employment contract, to any additional relief provided by special laws and those granted for a dismissal with the main purpose and intent to violate clear public policy by the State or any applicable constitutional right of the employee," would not be affected.

This way, the Board´s bill recognized jurisprudence regarding the limits in the at-will employment doctrine and that prohibits dismissal if it interferes with public policy, if there is a contract or if the dismissal is considered employer´s bad faith.

Senate bill 1011 and its equivalent in the House, 1064, says in the explanatory statement that other laws that protect workers are not affected. It also indicates, in what would be the text of the law, that workers will have the causes of action arising from the constitutions of Puerto Rico and the United States and applicable laws and regulations.

But in contrast, the bill specifically says that "an indefinite-term employee will not have cause of action against his employer merely because the employer terminates the employment relationship."

Sources close to the Board explained that the text sent by Rossello to the Legislature was examined by the entity.

"The fact that no specific mention is made does not imply that the jurisprudence on the issue is not recognized," the source said.

Last week, the Senate approved Rosselló Nevares bill, but applied the repeal of Law 80 prospectively. The Board said that if that is the case, they will cancel the agreement with Rosselló Nevares.

Two types of employees

"The Senate version creates two types of employees again, which was what the labor reform did last year," said Juan Cortés Valle, president of the Central Workers Federation (FCT, Spanish acronym).

According to Cortés Valle, when two types of employees are created, workers will again be at disadvantage, creating another administrative complexity for employers.

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