The Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, the Governor’s representative before the Board Christian Sobrino, and Secretary of Labor and Human Resources, Carlos Saavedra. (Xavier J. Araújo Berríos)

The differences between the Executive and the Legislative branches emerged yesterday during the first day of public hearings to discuss the repeal of Law 80.

The importance of Law 80 in the context of labor rights, the lack of powers of the Oversight Board to repeal or approve statutes, the lack of data to prove the positive effects of recent changes to labor laws and the Government's insistence on avoiding a clash in court with the entity in charge of the island's finances arose at the hearings of the House Government Commission.

The Government Commission is evaluating House Bill 1634 in order to eliminate Law 80, as required by the Board; and Senate Bill 1011, which, although also modifies the statute, does so prospectively.

Five members of the Executive Branch advocated for the approval of the House bill because, they said, it is in line with the agreement reached between Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares and the members of the Board. The Board and the Governor agreed to repeal Law 80 in exchange for more money in the budget and to protect -only during the five-year validity of the fiscal plan- the Christmas bonus and minimum vacation and sick leave.

They argued that not repealing Law 80 would create an atmosphere of "uncertainty" on the island. In addition, they insisted that "the best thing at this time" was to avoid a legal battle with the Board.

In the middle of the public hearing and answering a request from the Commission, the Board sent a letter making it clear that they would not approve it if the agreement with the governor is not complied with. The letter intensified the debate.

Immediately after, the lack of an agreement between the Executive and the Legislative branches came to light. The Governor stressed that the prospective nature of the repeal was irrelevant, since he negotiated with the Board to repeal Law 80 as of next January. "This agreement is for the benefit of the people," he said in an activity in which he gave $ 1 million to each municipality as a result of a fund created for recovery after Hurricane Maria.

He acknowledged that the Board has no power to repeal or approve laws, but made it clear that his intention is not to go to court. "I have read PROMESA from top to bottom on multiple occasions. I know that law perfectly well and I know that (position), if we take it to court, then we will be able to win. But it is a new law. There is no precedent and we put ourselves at risk of losing that, in addition to all the money we are going to lose in the process," he assured when El Nuevo Día asked him if it was the right time to face the Board in court, to clarify the powers of the Board under PROMESA.

Instead, Senate President Thomas Rivera Schatz said that the content of the Board's letter was a "threat to the Legislative Assembly."

"They have not produced asingle document that shows that there will be economic growth," he pointed out. "The Senate does not change its position because of what the Board says," he added.

Meanwhile, Carlos "Johnny" Méndez, House president, said that he does not answer "to pressure from the Board". "I think the Board´s letter is disrespectful to the legislators of Puerto Rico, the elected officials of the people of Puerto Rico, who have the ability to evaluate each of the measures sent by the Governor," he said.

In the letter, the Board stated that they would eliminate from the budget the item for the Christmas bonus of public employees, $ 50 million for the municipal fund, $ 25 million for the University of Puerto Rico scholarship fund and $ 345 million for economic development measures.

The climax of the hearing occurred when the New Progressive majority legislators questioned the Secretary of Labor and Human Resources, Carlos Saavedra, who defended the repeal of Law 80, like the rest of the government officials.

The Vice President of the House of Representatives, Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló, asked whether by repealing Law 80 and changing the labor legal framework to implement at-will employment, workers became practically contract employees.

He also questioned what the permanence of employees would be when repealing Law 80, especially considering that the Legislature created Law 4 last year and stated that the permanence for all workers employed after the date of approval of the statute would be nine months. "Secretary, I understand what is at stake and what the agreement of the Governor was," said Rodríguez Aguiló.

"It has been permanent from day one," replied Saavedra, provoking laughter from those present at the hearing, including his cabinet colleagues.

"Secretary, I call for seriousness. I know that you are in a very difficult position. You are in my administration and I defend you as far as I can, but this is a very serious matter. And your answer is hardly serious. Without Law 80, employees do not have permanence until the employer provides it and the nine-month period does not apply," answered back Rodriguez Aguiló, who is against the elimination of the statute that grants benefits to workers of the private sector due to unjust dismissal and also establishes the seniority rights of employees. Upon leaving the hearing, he announced that he was now more convinced to vote against the repeal of Law 80.

Subsequently, the Secretary of Justice Wanda Vázquez, as well as Saavedra, the Director of the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Board Gerardo Portela; the director of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce Manuel Laboy; and the Governor’s representative before the Board Christian Sobrino, argued that although Law 80 is repealed, Puerto Rican workers have multiple labor laws that protect them. All mentioned laws against discrimination, reprisals, sexual harassment, protection for working mothers and the right to breastfeeding leave.

But in his turn, the independence representative, Denis Márquez, made it clear that Law 80 is the "main law that protects workers" and that it is important for social justice to employees fired without just cause. "So much so that it has been amended by different administrations to seek social justice," he said. In addition, he stressed that it is a statute that protects an employee who was not been discriminated, harassed or a victim of any additional problems reflected in other labor laws.

Immediately after, the Independence Party legislator quoted expressions of the Labor Secretary when the Legislature passed Law 4 in 2017. "Even the Secretary of Labor himself -in his report to this Legislative Assembly- recognizes this by citing Supreme Court jurisprudence, which states that Law 80 has a social and a restorative purpose, since it provides a just and substantial remedy for the damages that an unjustified dismissal could have caused. That is the story of Law 80," he said.

The deponents were also in a dilemma when the Secretary of Justice stressed that approving the prospective repeal of Law 80 would create two parallel legal frameworks for employees: those employees before repealing the law and those employees after its elimination.

"It would be unfair," said the official, which prompted the Popular representative Luis Vega Ramos to state that that is the reality of the island after the administration of Roselló gave way to a labor reform last year.

Under this reform, there are currently employees with different vacation and sick leave, as well as dissimilar trial work periods.

The discussion allowed to ask the Secretary of Justice for a legal opinion that she must submit to the Legislature in the next 72 hours, defining whether that parallelism in the labor structure is constitutional or not.

The request for information exposed the lack of control over the parliamentary process of the President of the Commission, Jorge Navarro, who had to be assisted by other legislators who reminded him that the Legislature has the power to demand information from the Executive Branch.

Meanwhile, Portela stressed that, according to the figures provided by the Board, repealing Law 80 would result in a boost in the economy of .3 percent, or "$ 430 million in 30 to 40 years."

However, the calculation turns out to be higher than that of the Governor himself, who said that he was been informed that this percentage would amount to $ 300 million per year.

"Enemy number one of investment –whether a Puerto Rican or foreign investor - is the lack of certainty. Uncertainty does not help anyone," said Laboy.

However, Rodríguez Aguiló felt surprised with the officials’ statements and said to the press that he had always been told that the main obstacles to do business in Puerto Rico were high energy costs and slowness in granting permits.

The PNP representative José Enrique "Quique" Meléndez described the Board´s request as "extortion". In addition, he said that the Board, contrary to what the officials outlined, cannot eliminate the Christmas bonus nor reduce sick or vacation leave.

"This is a case of extortion. It is a reprehensible act. The Board does not legislate. The Board cannot go to court and say 'eliminate this'," said the PNP representative annoyed and loudly.

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