End of U.S. long-term unemployment benefits will affect 1,600 V.I. residents

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ST. THOMAS - Virgin Islanders receiving Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits are about to get cut off after the federal program expires Saturday.

Congress decided Wednesday not to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, which serves unemployed people who have not found a job before their standard unemployment benefits expire.

In the Virgin Islands, people generally have 26 weeks of unemployment benefits. With the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program, unemployed residents can receive an additional 47 weeks of assistance.

About 1,600 people currently are receiving emergency payments in the Virgin Islands.

In the past year, the Virgin Islands has paid out $20 million in regular unemployment, funded by the V.I. Unemployment Trust Fund. Another $18 million from the federal government has funded the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program in the Virgin Islands.

"That $18 million helped drive our economy, and that $18 million is taxable," said V.I. Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan Jr.

For some states and territories, the expiration will not take such a toll, as unemployment is handled on a state-by-state basis. Depending on a state or territory's average unemployment rate over a period, the U.S. Department of Labor determines how many weeks of unemployment can be made available to those that need it.

Hence, some states do not rely so heavily on federal dollars for help.

As of Monday, the Virgin Islands had the second-highest average unemployment rate in the nation over the most recent three-month period - 11.2 percent - according to the U.S. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The highest rate is in Puerto Rico at 14.4 percent.

Because of their high rates, both territories were able to offer the maximum 73 weeks of unemployment by way of the federal program.

Not anymore, as Bryan said that Congress is not chomping at the bit to reinstate the program since reports of a slight uptick in the economy.

In the Virgin Islands, even, there are some silver linings, Bryan said, namely the drop in new claims for unemployment.

"Unemployment rates are going to pre-recession rates, but job offering have not increased back to what they were pre-recession, Bryan said.

On St. Thomas and St. John, for instance, the high-season has kept the tourism industry steady, though construction jobs are becoming harder to come by. St. Croix is relatively flat, Bryan said, though the closing of HOVENSA still has the island reconfiguring itself, if not the entire territory.

"What we're looking for is investment from the private sector," Bryan said.

He noted that he was worried that if jobs did not become easier to come by in the near future, more people would begin to migrate stateside in search of employment. Already this is happening, he said.

"It's such a precarious situation to be unemployed in the V.I.," he said. "When the recession first began, people were not as eager to find work. They need to work now."

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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