As Congress has wrangled, debated and delayed a massive $2 trillion coronavirus economic aid package, many in the U.S. Virgin Islands have been calling Delegate Stacey Plaskett’s (D-VI) office to find out if all that aid going to states and to stateside U.S. taxpayers will also be available for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“I want to assure everyone that yes we are. We as Virgin Islanders are recognized as American people in this bill,” Plaskett said in a telephone press conference Friday.
Enhanced Unemployment Compensation
The entire nation has seen an abrupt spike in unemployment, and with the cessation of cruise ships arrivals, moratorium on new hotel guests, and social distancing directives, the USVI has and will see job losses too.
“We know that many people have been furloughed or laid off,” Plaskett said.
For V.I. workers who have been laid off, as well as the people to whom they pay rent, pay for gas, groceries and all the necessities of life, the most significant part of the new federal stimulus package may be its big bump in unemployment compensation. It provides an additional $600 per week for the next four weeks, on top of regular unemployment compensation.
It also provides an additional 13 weeks of federally funded benefits, and expanded eligibility to include workers in the gig economy and self-employed workers. This is especially significant locally because the territorial unemployment compensation fund is already stretched to the limit. The forms to apply can be found online here.
One-Time Cash Payments
Virgin Islanders will also get one-time direct cash payments, just as stateside U.S. citizens will. That provides for immediate, direct cash payments to lower-and middle-income Americans of $1,200 for each adult and $500 for each child, beginning to phase out at an annual income of $75,000 for an individual and $150,000 for a household. It goes down as income goes up, until at $99,000 for an individual and $198,000 for a couple, it stops altogether.
But there is one, possibly serious, caveat for Virgin Islanders. For most U.S. tax payers, the U.S. Internal Revenue Service will be direct depositing the money right in the bank accounts they used to pay their taxes for 2018 or, if they filed already, for 2019. That should go out in the next three weeks or so, Plaskett said. But the U.S. Virgin Islands operates a mirror tax code, with residents paying the V.I. Bureau of Internal Revenue instead of the IRS.
“That will be a question I’m sure you all will be directing at them,” Plaskett said.
Some Virgin Islanders are still waiting for past-years’ tax refunds, begging the question of how fast payments might occur.
“We are tracking the legislation and are still awaiting guidance from the federal government on how this will be funded for territories with mirror tax codes,” Government House spokesperson Richard Motta said, when reached for comment Friday evening.
Small Business Loans and Payroll Assistance Grants
“Small business … those with 500 or fewer employees in the Virgin Islands can apply for federally guaranteed loans,” Plaskett said. Loans would come through banks, credit unions and other private institutions, and be guaranteed by the federal government. If businesses keep employees on payroll, the portion used for payroll becomes a grant.
They can be applied to payroll back to February 15, when the epidemic began to take off, Plaskett said.
“As long as they maintain their payroll and employees, that portion will be forgiven at the end of the crisis,” Plaskett said. But if it lays off employees, it remains a loan. Loan size varies with size of the business but the maximum loan is $10 million.
Plaskett said her office will be holding a conference through the online meeting platform Zoom at noon Monday, to meet with small businesses in the USVI who are interested in learning more about this program and how to take advantage. Her office will be sending out information to the territory’s two Chambers of Commerce with details.
Overall, the aid package provides more than $375 billion nationwide in small business relief, including $349 billion for forgivable loans to small businesses to pay their employees and keep them on the payroll.
It also has $17 billion for debt relief for current and new SBA borrowers; and $10 billion in immediate disaster grants.
Direct Assistance to the V.I Government
The package has a state and local government relief fund, with $3 billion set aside for the territories and Washington D.C. If that is divided in the usual way, that should mean about $75 million in direct cash to the government to help mitigate lost revenue and government expenses, Plaskett said.
The package includes over $38 million to help in creating and training teachers for an online, “distance learning” system. “That’s greater than $10 million more than the Department of Education requested,” Plaskett said.
“This pandemic has really demonstrated the divisions in our country based on location and more importantly based on economics,” Plaskett said.
“In the U.S. Virgin Islands, with 43 percent living below the poverty line, our children will not have the tools” to immediately leap into online learning, she said.
“We don’t want our children to fall further behind. So based on need, not so much on population – and we believe USVI DOE has been given sufficient funding to create the type of distance learning the children in more wealthy jurisdictions have, to be able to compete,” she said.
Hospital and Health Care
The package has about $200 billion, nationwide for hospitals, health systems, and health research, including expanding funding for the personal protective equipment needed by health care workers, including ventilators, masks, gowns, gloves and so forth. The Virgin Islands gets a share of this.
Nothing in this package directly helps with utility bills. Funding to hospitals and the local government may go in part to pay utility bills.
The key word in local utility is “local,” Plaskett said, adding that “We are relying on the local government there.” She went on to elaborate that the local utility is owned by the territorial government and outside the scope of this federal assistance package, which is focused on the economic downturn and response to the coronavirus epidemic.
“There may be something to support that in the the next bill,” Plaskett said. “But there are other things that need to be done in our local utility to give the federal government confidence in that respect,” she added. This federal package is the third in response to the ongoing epidemic. Plaskett said members of Congress are already considering a fourth bill, which may be more along the lines of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the stimulus package enacted in the midst of the worldwide financial crisis.
In a release Friday evening, Plaskett lauded the bill’s passage and chastised Republicans for initially pushing a bill with fewer protections for workers while showering corporations with billions of dollars without oversight.
“America is currently facing a grave health emergency with a serious impact on our economy. The coronavirus bill that Senate Republicans put forward last weekend was a non-starter and put corporations first, not American workers,” Plaskett wrote.
“The Republican bill gave big corporations billions in taxpayer dollars with no real requirement to protect their workers’ wages and benefits instead of CEO pay, stock buybacks and layoffs. It failed to provide meaningful support for Americans losing their jobs or hours,” she said.
“Thanks to the hard work of Congressional Democrats, the Republicans’ corporations-focused proposal bill has been turned into a bipartisan workers-first bill. Democrats have achieved the bold, pro-worker action that is desperately needed to protect the health and well-being of every American,” she concluded.