ST. THOMAS- Members of the Committee on Education and Workforce Development chaired by Sen. Donna Frett-Gregory met on Tuesday at the Capitol Building to receive testimony on the status of the State Unemployment Insurance Program, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Invited testifiers were officials from the Virgin Islands Department of Labor (DOL).
Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic that prompted the Governor of the U.S. Virgin Islands Albert Bryan, Jr. to sign the Pandemic Unemployment Insurance Agreement on March 27, 2020; DOL was able to gain access to funds from the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES); according to Gary Malloy, Commissioner of DOL. In response to the high unemployment rate in the Territory, Malloy mentioned that DOL disseminated 39,870 unemployment checks or unemployment compensation worth over $45 million in April 2020, and an additional 3,118 checks totaling $8,528,400 in May of 2020. Sen. Frett-Gregory inquired about the June data especially since the Territory re-opened at that time. Gary Halyard, Acting Director of Unemployment Insurance/Director of Bureau of Labor Statistics, stated the numbers were not calculated yet. However, the information should be available by July 17th.
As a result of the high unemployment rate, Malloy noted that the loan balance totals $58,707,341 from the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. However, DOL further requested an estimated $15 million to cover unemployment checks for the upcoming months. Sen. Oakland Benta further queried the reason for the loan. In response, Malloy stated that the $15 million will cover the Local Trust Fund to ensure monies are available for unemployment checks for the next three months. Sen. Frett-Gregory also shared remarks regarding the increased workload of DOL employees. “I am concerned with the mental state of the employees. There needs to be a balance in assisting the public while maintaining the morale of the staff,” Sen. Frett-Gregory said. Molloy stated that employees are working hard to assist the unemployed. Those who work late receive overtime payment. Separately, Sen. Frett-Gregory cautioned DOL to take a closer look at DOL’s hotline number because there are challenges when constituents call and can’t get through.
Under the CARES Act, the Department of Labor’s VIDOLA$ System acquired additional Federal programs such as the Waiting Week Waiver, the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, Extended Benefits, and the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUA). Sen. Kurt Vialet expressed concern with unemployment applicants who require coverage under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. “My biggest issue is whether DOL is handling and providing assistance to people who are unable to access and listen to virtual town hall meetings, have trouble applying for the unemployment application online due to computer illiteracy, or those who do not have internet access. I do not want workers who are eligible for PUA such as contractors, electricians, and taxi drivers to fall through the cracks.”