Unemployment in the territory is like an “invisible hurricane,” creating unprecedented amounts of unemployment benefits insurance claims in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Labor Commissioner Gary Molloy told a V.I. Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Testifying before the Committee on Education and Workforce Development, Molloy said the number of jobless claims has soared since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Under regular circumstances, the department would provide benefits for approximately 300 applicants a year. Within the past 10 months VIDOL received over 17,000 applications,” Molloy said. “This amount has vastly exceeded the physical storms of hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, and the closure of Hovensa LLC in 2012.”
The department has processed 9,369 claims on St. Thomas, 4,448 claims on St. Croix, 1,010 claims on St. John and an additional 1,480 interstate claims.
With the claims piling up, Molloy said the department can pay on the claims only by continuing to borrow from the National Trust Fund. If 2021 continues with high unemployment rates, Molloy anticipates the department may need to borrow upwards of $72 million in addition to what has already been borrowed.
Sen. Stedmann Hodge Jr. said the department currently has an $82 million debt.
“We had to borrow for the month of July, $5 million; in August another $5 million; for September we have had to borrow $6.3 million; for October, we had to borrow $9 million. We have borrowed for November $6 million, and we also have a request in for December for $6 million,” Molloy said.
Not only is money a challenge, but with the influx of claims comes more people that need service from the department. To meet the needs of so many claimants, while also being required to follow guidelines from the Department of Health, the department has introduced a new system.
Assistant Commissioner Cindy Richardson said the Labor Department has implemented a pager system, similar to pager systems used by restaurants.
“The individual will come in and we will take their basic information, hand them a pager and ask them to wait in the outdoor waiting area that we have set up outside the building. We then would be able to pull that person’s benefit information and everything they would need, like a certification or anything they might need to make them current,” Richardson said.
Once the claimant is given what they need to facilitate their request, the claimant can either hand in all the documents at that time or put it in the department’s dropbox on another day, Richardson said.
While wait times can be as short as 15 minutes, Richardson said, it may be over an hour until someone is helped, depending on their individual situation.
Molloy said to meet the demand of the public the department reopened its lobbies on Oct. 27 and has served more than 1,500 claimants using the new pager system.
The department also relaunched its Integrated Voice Response system, in which more than 11,000 claimants received personal identification numbers allowing them to check the status of their claim, Weekly Benefit Amount and claim balance over the phone, Molloy said.
More information about the various assistance programs offered by the department is online at the department’s website.