V.I. Labor Department gets $2.7M grant [The Virgin Islands Daily News, St. Thomas]
(Virgin Islands Daily News (St. Thomas) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 11--ST. CROIX -- V.I. Labor Department officials said a $2.7 million federal grant the department recently received will be used to upgrade computer hardware and software and to hire staff to improve the integrity and performance of the Unemployment Insurance program.
The grant also will be used to make improvements that could make things less complicated for people receiving unemployment benefits, according to officials.
The territory's unemployment rate was 13.5 percent in August, according to the most recent statistics available from the V.I. Labor Department on Thursday.
In the St. Thomas-St. John District, the unemployment rate was 12.4 percent for August, and for the same month on St. Croix, it was 14.8 percent.
Government House indicated that of the 39 states that applied for these grants, the territory received the seventh-largest payout -- $2,746,263 of the total $77,635,182 the U.S. Labor Department awarded nationally.
V.I. Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan Jr. and Labor's Unemployment Insurance Director Allison DeGazon said Thursday that the reason for the higher grant award is that the V.I. Labor Department's current system is antiquated -- and also because some "innovative ideas" were put forth, to focus on improving system integrity and reducing fraud and overpayments.
For example, one plan is "connecting a lot of local agencies into one system, so we can share information we all need," DeGazon said. Using a system like that and cross-referencing with, for example, the Department of Licensing and Consumer Affairs or the Internal Revenue Bureau could help with detecting businesses that are operating in the territory but not paying unemployment tax, she said.
"Right now, our systems don't speak to each other," Bryan said.
He said that the proposed upgrades also could allow for notification here when someone receiving local unemployment benefits has gone to work stateside and begins collecting a paycheck.
"These integrity investments will work in conjunction with other strategies being employed to hold the territory accountable for improved prevention, detection and recovery of improper payments," a statement issued last week by Government House said. "These funds and additional grant monies recently secured by the department will soon make direct deposit and other enhanced unemployment insurance services available to the customers in the Virgin Islands as well as the mainland."
Officials said the proposed hardware upgrades and new software and programming will also make things simpler for beneficiaries.
According to DeGazon, the planned upgrades will allow for direct deposits of benefit checks, and would also allow for services such as recertification to be done by phone. Recertification requires people receiving unemployment benefits to verify every two weeks that they are actively seeking work, are able to work and still are not employed. Right now, recertification is done in person, DeGazon said.
A portion of the grant will go to contracting with a third-party to analyze and assess the current system and make recommendations on improving it, DeGazon said.
The majority of the grant is to cover labor costs for some temporary workers in information technology as well as some analysts, DeGazon said. The assessment should provide specific information about the scope of work that will be needed, she said.
Other recent grants have allowed the Labor Department to move toward electronic filing, as well as for the development of a benefit payment control unit to do cross-checks aimed at helping ensure benefits are not overpaid, officials said.
Bryan said he did not have an estimate at this point of how much the department stands to save or recover because of the planned upgrades or of the temporary positions that will be created through this grant.
"It hasn't been quantified," he said. "That's what the assessment should tell us. It's part of the grant."
The $2.7 million grant will last until December 2015, DeGazon said.
- Contact Joy Blackburn at 714-9145 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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