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Problems of Working in the Territory Aired at Hearing

March 16, 2005 – Members of the Senate Labor and Agriculture Committee learned the status of labor in the territory at a public hearing Wednesday.
The committee, chaired by Sen. Terrence "Positive" Nelson, received testimony from Labor Department officials and labor union representatives on the conditions facing the territory's approximately 50,000 workers.
According to the Labor Department officials, staff and money shortages made it difficult to carry out their obligations to the territory's workforce. Union leaders, on the other hand, blamed the labor woes in the territory on the government's violations of its own laws.
Cecil Benjamin, Labor commissioner, said his department is currently having difficulty regulating the private sector. Private sector workers' main complaint is the lack of benefits such as health insurance and retirement plans, according to Benjamin.
"What seems to be on the rise is paying employees in cash, so as not to pay into the system," Benjamin said, adding these employers were avoiding paying unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, social security and taxes.
Glen Smith, director of labor relations for the department, said, "We have a critical need for more investigators, compliance officers and secretarial staff. We do not have adequate staff to fulfill our mandate."
Smith said his division currently has six full-time staff.
"We should have at least four additional investigators – two on each island," Smith said. "This would allow us to conduct more site visitations to monitor compliance in the areas of payroll inspection and poster inspections on all three islands."
He added, "Due to our severe personnel shortage, St. John receives very little site visitations, if any, from this division. We do handle investigative cases on St. John, but they are mostly driven by complaints received by our office."
Benjamin told the committee that although the territorial unemployment rate was 8.3 percent – 9.9 percent in the St. Croix District and 7.2 percent in the St. Thomas-St. John District – the situation would improve with a number of construction projects soon to come online, including the Yacht Haven and Red Hook Terminal projects on St. Thomas, and the Carambola and Golden Gaming projects on St. Croix.
"These projects will create thousands of jobs," Benjamin said.
Sen. Celestino White asked whether the St. Croix projects were actually going to happen. White said he was under the impression that these projects were not becoming reality, and the government needed to stop giving residents "false hopes."
Benjamin said no information had been given to him to indicate those projects would not come to fruition.
In response to questioning by White, Benjamin said the local government was entering an agreement with the federal government that would turn over the regulation of the private sector's Occupational Safety and Health Administration's program requirements to the federal government. Benjamin said this is because the Labor Department does not have the staff or funding required to ensure that the private sector is meeting the OSHA requirements. The Labor Department will continue to monitor government agencies.
"The Labor Department is not functioning as it should," Luis "Tito" Morales, president of the local United Steelworkers of America union, said, adding that it needs more employees.
Morales told the committee the government needed to pay its employees the negotiated wages because "cost of living has skyrocketed."
"This government is the biggest violator of its own laws," Morales said. "The history of this government has shown that for unions to get their money they either have to strike or take the government to court."
He added, "This governor is still asleep."
Morales said when Gov. Charles W. Turnbull issued raises for government employees about two years ago; Notices of Personnel Action (NOPAs) were given to all employees. However, when the raises were reduced, due to the government's fiscal crisis, NOPAs were not given to these individuals to reflect the reduction of wages.
Morales said this would create two problems. When these individuals retire or resign the government would owe them the balance of the higher wages indicated in their NOPAs. Also, because the NOPAs show the higher wages, and not the reduced wages, the employees' contribution to the Government Employees Retirement System have to reflect the higher wages on the NOPA and not the wages actually being received.
Charlene Jones, chief negotiator for the V.I. State Nurses Association, also complained about NOPAs.
"Many nurses are working without NOPAs," Jones said, adding unless an employee receives a NOPA, that individual cannot receive GERS benefits.
Jones said 61 individuals in the Roy Lester Schneider Hospital's Nursing Department are working without GERS benefits, 37 of them are registered nurses.
Currently, the nurses are being paid from the hospital's revolving fund, and not from the General Fund, because the Office of Management and Budget refuses to accept those employees although they are needed, Jones said.
Furthermore, only two individuals graduating from the University of the Virgin Islands' nursing program has expressed a desire to work at Schneider Hospital, Jones said, because most are unwilling to work without receiving benefits.
"Since NOPAs are not forthcoming, they will be forced to leave the island," Jones said.
Jones said the biggest problem facing the hospital is when a nurse resigns or retires; OMB closes that position, even though the need for that position still exists.
"OMB just denies every position," Jones said, because of the government's "fiscal crisis."
She added, "I think we're just pawns in the middle of it."
St. Thomas-St. John Federation of Teachers President Vernelle de Lagarde told senators unattractive salaries, poor working conditions and a high cost of living have forced low morale on many teachers in the territory. Because of this the AFT has rejected the governor's proposals and will go back to the negotiating table Thursday, de Lagarde said.
"The AFT is not just about money," de Lagarde said, adding its also about better working conditions and supplies to provide the territory's students with a quality education. However, the administration continues to neglect the concerns of the AFT, de Lagarde said.
St. Thomas-St. John International Association of Fire Fighters President Daryl George also complained of the limited resources offered to firefighters. George said more staff, funding, equipment and supplies were needed. He added the Fort Christian station also should be moved.
"This station has outlived its usefulness," George said.
George urged the Senate to ensure that the $1.3 million in raises promised to the firefighters was granted.
"I'm appealing to the 26th Legislature to do the right thing," George said.
The committee also received testimony from the Public Employees Relations Board and GERS officials Wednesday.
PERB Legal Counsel Richard Evangelista told senators that during fiscal year 2004, 106 cases were filed with the PERB, the majority of which were unfair labor practice charges. At the close of 2004, there were 188 pending, unfair-labor cases, including cases from prior fiscal years.
Evangelista said the backlog was because PERB is now required to deal with Section 530 cases – appeals of terminations, suspensions and demotions. These cases were previously handled by the Justice Department.
"These supercede all the other cases that are backlogged," Evangelista said.
Evangelista said the Section 530 cases must be filed with the PERB within 10 days of the employer action, and PERB must have its first hearing within 30 days of filin
g. All hearings must be completed in 60 days, and PERB must make a decision on the case 14 days after the last hearing.
"These cases are the ones that tie up our calendar," Evangelista said. Evangelista said 17 such cases were filed during fiscal year 2004.
Willis Todman, GERS acting administrator, told the committee the government's pension program had an $898.5 million liability.
"For the last 10 years, GERS has been paying out more than it receives in contributions," Todman said.
Todman said for this fiscal year, GERS received $82 million in employer and employee contributions and paid out $126.7 million in benefits. Todman said in FY 2004, it had to liquidate $46.4 million in assets to fund the annuity payroll.
"The effect of a shrinking government payroll impacts the cash flow of the GERS significantly," Todman said. "A reduced payroll corresponds to reduced contributions."
Committee members attending the meeting Wednesday were: Sens. Liston Davis, Nelson and White. Sens. Craig Barshinger, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Shawn-Michael Malone and Ronald E. Russell were absent. White said they were attending the Seatrade Conference in Miami.
Sens. Louis Hill and Usie Richards, who are not members of the committee, were also present.
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