Labor Commissioner Touts Department's Progress

Jan. 25, 2006 – At the urging of Gov. Charles W. Turnbull, who is preparing for his final state of the territory address Monday, Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin called the Source to report on his department's accomplishments.
"We have done quite a bit," Benjamin, who became commissioner in 2001, said.
He said his proudest moment came when the department received the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Graduate School's Vision of Excellence award for making noteworthy progress during the past 2 1/2 years. The Labor Department received the award in the summer of 2005.
He said the award came after the department reduced costs, improved its business processes and operations, stepped up training, improved compliance with federal and local regulations and served as an advocate for change.
Benjamin spoke at length about the technological improvements made by the department, including a new system allowing unemployment claims to be processed faster and another system providing speedier delivery of services to the unemployed, underemployed and disadvantaged youths and adults.
"Instead of waiting weeks and months, you can be referred to a job at a faster rate," he said.
He said the department was instrumental in the passage of the State Unemployment Tax Act, which imposes penalties for employers who falsify records so they don't have to pay the full amount of unemployment insurance for their workers.
Benjamin said the department also has several programs for youths. One after-school program teaches computer skills to youths ages 14 to 25, while another targets the same age group for on-the-job training.
He said a summer job program for youths features businesses paying half the youth's salary with the federal government picking up the other half.
The department also has an active school-to-work program for students in grades kindergarten through 12. "It gives them an idea of the world of work," Benjamin said.
He said the students learn how to develop skills and attitudes that will help them be productive in the work place.
Benjamin said the department did staff training, held workshops on how to reduce and eliminate discrimination in the workplace, and had seminars on employer and employee rights under the territory's fair labor practice law.
He said the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics sent out a job vacancy survey to more than 3,000 employers to determine their workforce needs in five years and 10 years, "so we could train people today."
He said the survey showed employers need people with technology skills. Additionally, the Hovensa refinery on St. Croix has an ongoing need for employees, especially welders, pipe fitters, carpenters, millwrights, and other trades.
"And they pay well out there," he said, referring to the refinery's wage scale.
Benjamin said the department launched an aggressive campaign to get the word out about the services it provides and that morale is up among the department's 205 workers on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
Down the road, Benjamin said he plans to open a St. John office to better serve residents. Currently, Labor Department staff visit the island a few times a week.
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