U.S. Virgin Islands workers who lost their jobs after hurricanes
Irma and Maria have until July 31 to apply for up to 52 weeks of Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA). The DUA program provides unemployment benefits to individuals who have become unemployed as a direct result of a presidentially declared major disaster, according to a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Labor on Wednesday.
The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that more than 1,000 Virgin Islands workers may be entitled to roughly $8,000 in federally funded DUA, to be paid retroactively in lump-sum payments. Advocates are urging Virgin Islands officials to request a federal extension of the July 31 deadline to ensure that all those who qualify are able to access the program.
More than a year after hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the Virgin Islands, Congress enacted a special extension of the DUA program, providing an unprecedented 26 additional weeks of DUA for workers who exhaust their regular unemployment benefits or their standard 26 weeks of DUA as well as up to 52 weeks of DUA for individuals who previously failed to apply for DUA for legitimate reasons.
Workers who were unemployed as a direct result of the hurricanes between Sept. 20, 2017 and Sept. 22, 2018 are eligible to collect a retroactive, lump-sum payment of DUA without regard to whether they are currently employed. The minimum DUA benefit in the Virgin Islands is $170 per week, and the maximum weekly benefit is $552 per week (the average worker collects $339 per week).
The special DUA program was first announced by the V.I. Department of Labor on March 25, 2019. The original May 24 filing deadline was extended to July 31 in response to a request by the V.I. to federal authorities. Although the territory is required to report the number of people who have collected DUA to the U.S. Department of Labor, no such data has been shared since December 2018, making it difficult to evaluate how many people have collected the new federal benefits.
NELP estimates that 1,000 to 1,500 people (or roughly 10 percent of the population) reached the end of their regular unemployment insurance benefits in the U.S.V.I. after the storms, which means they would potentially qualify for an additional 26 weeks of DUA benefits. Just accounting for those who ran out of their regular unemployment benefits (thus not including those who collected DUA after the storms), over $8 million in DUA benefits may be available in $8,000 sum payments to 1,000 Virgin Islands workers and self-employed business owners.
“The Virgin Islands should take advantage of this important opportunity to help the families and local business owners hardest hit by the hurricanes by seeking an extension of the July 31 deadline and streamlining the DUA application process,” said Maurice Emsellem, program director at NELP.
Shelby King Gaddy Esq., executive director of Legal Services of the Virgin Islands Inc. (LSVI), said: “Legal Services of the Virgin Islands is committed to raising awareness of the availability of DUA benefits. LSVI developed a Disaster Advocacy Program in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria to help manage the increase in disaster-related legal matters. The LSVI Disaster Advocacy Program provides free legal assistance to low-income disaster survivors in the U.S.V.I. Our attorneys help Virgin Islanders with Disaster Unemployment Assistance, Unemployment Insurance, and Wrongful Discharge.”
For more information about this special DUA program, see the Virgin Islands fact sheet developed by NELP. To apply for the benefits, individuals may call Virgin Islands Department of Labor at 715-5712 or visit its website at https://www.vidol.gov/.