The business community of the Virgin Islands is not happy with how government agencies are doing their business. On Wednesday the St. Thomas Board of Directors of the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce joined the St. Croix Chamber of Commerce in questioning what Labor Department Commissioner Catherine Hendry and Attorney General Claude Walker were thinking in sending generic “dunning” letters to employers throughout the Virgin Islands demanding unspecified payment of Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions.
A press release sent Wednesday from the St. Thomas-St. John Chamber went further than the St. Croix Chamber by condemning “the heavy-handed approach” approach the agencies had taken.
The Source obtained a copy of a letter sent to a St. Croix business signed by Attorney General Claude Walker. It said, “You are significantly delinquent in your unemployment contribution. I am requesting that either you or your representatives appear at one of the follow DOL (Department of Labor) offices to address your arrearages.”
After listing the office locations, it says, “You have until June 10, 2016, to satisfy the outstanding amounts due otherwise you will face legal action.”
It contained no detailed information on the amount owed or the time period involved.
According to the press release from St. Thomas-St. John Chamber of Commerce, “The Virgin Islands Government contends that over 3,000 active employers in the territory owe more than $32 million in delinquent Unemployment Insurance Fund contributions dating back to the 1980s. Debts that old may not be lawfully collected. Further, if the former Commissioner of Labor is correct, the vast majority of the legally collectible debt is owed by the government itself.”
St. Thomas-St. John Chamber Board President Sebastiano Paiewonsky-Cassinelli said in the press release, "Such a letter from a private organization wouldn’t stand muster under the Federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, which requires, at the minimum, notice of the type of debt and the amount owed. In fact, the sender of such dunning letters could face fines and penalties.”
Paiewonsky-Cassinelli continued, “The position of the attorney general to universally assume everyone is guilty appears to be consistent with the current posture of the Department of Justice in a number of areas in which recognized standards of procedure mean nothing. The attorney general can expect the chamber, on behalf of employers throughout the territory, to vigorously push back in instances in which it believes he has overstepped his authority or engaged in an abuse of power.”
Paiewonsky-Cassinelli said it was appalling that “the Department of Labor appears to be abdicating its recordkeeping obligations” and expects the businesses of this territory “to line up and prove their innocence by June 10, all under the threat of legal action by the Department of Justice.” He said, “This current move is similar to those taken by other government agencies in demanding proof of payment and is based on deplorable government recordkeeping that must be corrected over and over again by business owners and taxpayers.”
“We wonder if the same letter was sent to government agencies that owe money to the Unemployment Fund or are we to accept that the government of the Virgin Islands is current on its payments,” he said.
Paiewonsky-Cassinelli continued, "How much more difficult does this government wish to make operation of business in this territory? It is already difficult to start and operate a business in the territory. Nothing short of an apology and a retraction of all the dunning letters is in order.”
“The chamber realizes that there are probably some employers who have not paid their fair share of Unemployment Insurance or perhaps have miscalculated what that amount should be. In those instances, we support the Department of Labor’s efforts to collect outstanding debts,” Paiewonsky-Cassinelli said. “However, such collection efforts must be done within the bounds of law and with the civil decency we would normally extend to our neighbors, which in this territory we all are, government and private enterprise alike."