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Gov’t steps in to help J’cans stranded in US

Published:Friday | March 27, 2020 | 12:27 AMLester Hinds/Gleaner Writer

Stay where you are!

That’s the message from Jamaica’s ambassador to the United States, Audrey Marks, to seasonal hotel workers who have been turning up at American airports seeking to return to their homeland because their employment ended early because of the COVID -19 outbreak.

At the same time, Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith said that the Holness administration had organised assistance for stranded Jamaicans once it became aware of their plight.

Jamaica closed its borders at midnight March 23, after a 48-hour extension, to limit the spread of COVID-19. More than two-thirds of Jamaica’s 26 confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections were imported.

“For those who did not have friends or family in Atlanta with whom they could stay, the ministry team secured the agreement of the relevant airlines to reroute our nationals to appropriate cities at no charge. This also meant securing, for some, arrangements for their employers to either take them back on the job or to secure accommodations for them,” the minister said in her statement.

Johnson Smith said that all the Jamaicans who were at the Atlanta airport are currently being housed in Atlanta; Wisconsin; Chicago; Miami; Washington, DC; Philadelphia; Utah; and Panama City, Florida.

“Our nationals were in great anxiety and uncertainty about their next steps, and the situation was not made easier by the fact that they were all in differing situations. They are now safe, and some of them have sent voice notes and WhatsApp messages expressing gratitude,” the foreign minister said.

Economic Fallout

The dilemma of the more than 200 workers became known after they turned up at airports in Atlanta, New Jersey, and Philadelphia, seeking to get back to Jamaica because the hotels where they worked shuttered as a consequence of the economic headwinds from the novel coronavirus. The HB-2 Visa workers were employed across the United States from December to April.

The latest number of hotel workers were at the Atlanta airport on Thursday morning, trying to get back to Jamaica. They had been asked to vacate the accommodation provided for them by the hotel.

Sheryl James, along with three other hotel workers, arrived at the airport yesterday morning after trying for four days to get back to Jamaica from Wyoming.

“We were booked to get to Jamaica on the 24th, but our flights kept getting cancelled. … They flew us to Salt Lake City and then to Atlanta, all the time telling us that we would be able to get to Jamaica,” she told The Gleaner in a telephone interview.

“I am looking on an empty plane readying to fly to Jamaica yet we cannot get on,” she complained.

In a message posted on her Facebook page on Thursday, Ambassador Marks pleaded with all Jamaicans who are currently on seasonal work programmes in the United States to stay at their assigned properties.

“Though the properties are not currently operational, an agreement has been reached with the employers to secure accommodation for all workers during this time,” she said.

Pointing out that no incoming passengers would be allowed in Jamaica before April 7, Ambassador Marks said she was appealing to Jamaicans at home and abroad who have family members in the US to discourage them from attempting to travel to Jamaica.