STATEMENT BY THE HONOURABLE VINCENT WHEATLEY
MINISTER FOR NATURAL RESOURCES, LABOUR & IMMIGRATION
UNEMPLOYMENT/UNDEREMPLOYMENT BENEFITS PROGRAMME
WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2020
Mr. Speaker, I thank you for the opportunity to update this Honourable House and the Territory on the activities of the Social Security Board.
Mr. Speaker, it is a known fact that Social Security continues to play a pivotal role in improving the standard of living for all who call this Territory their home.
Mr. Speaker, although I have said it before, it bears repeating. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on economies around the world, including the Virgin Islands. This Government, in its effort to slow the spread of the virus, implemented several measures including a 24 hour curfew. This resulted in the unemployment of thousands of persons. Our Government responded by providing temporary unemployment/underemployment benefits for those who became unemployed or underemployed as a direct result of COVID-19.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to report the following statistics as of September 17:
Persons Paid: 3,457
Amount Paid: $4,366,488.03
Claims Denied: 2,117
Outstanding New Claims: 2072
Mr. Speaker, I acknowledge that there are persons yet to receive a benefit, but, sir, this is not due to the lack of effort on behalf of Social Security Board. It is mainly due to the lack of salary information from employers. Mr. Speaker, there are hundreds of employers who continue to deduct from their employees and do not remit the contributions to the Board. These employers are also in violation of the Labour Code by not giving their employees pay-slips. Thus, this lack of information has led to the inability of the Social Security Board to calculate and pay benefits.
Mr. Speaker, the Social Security Board staff must be commended for their tireless efforts in trying to secure the salary information from these defaulting employers and must also be commended for working late into the night and weekends to process the over 6,000 unemployment/underemployment claims received while at the same time processing regular claims, including thousands of pension payments.
Mr. Speaker, the Honourable Premier and his government are committed to ensuring that employers live up to their legal and moral obligations. One such measure is the mandate that employees must secure a Certificate of Earnings and employers must secure a Certificate of Good Standing before work permits are renewed. Mr. Speaker, this has had the desired outcome. Several employers who were in default for an extended period of time have been forced to pay past due contributions. Regrettably Mr. Speaker, there is a significant number of employers who are still non-responsive.
Mr. Speaker, prior to COVID-19, an application for one of the aforementioned Certificates took, at most, 48 hours. Due to the large increase in the number of applications (approximately 100 NHI, 100 SSB per week) it is taking much longer, as the Social Security Board has not employed additional resources. Therefore, to ensure that applicants obtain Certificates in time to file for their work permits, SSB/NHI is asking that persons apply one month prior to the expiration of their work permits.
Mr. Speaker, Social Security continues to live up to the reason for which it was created, that is, to pay benefits. Presently, there are 3,160 persons receiving monthly pensions. From January 1, 2020 to August 31, 2020, the Board paid $18,508,691.09 in pensions and $2,030,321.09 in short-term benefits. Mr. Speaker, I am grateful to the visionaries who were responsible for the creation of this safety net for the people of this Territory. I cannot imagine the kind of life our seniors would have without their monthly pension checks.I wish to note here that in anticipation of some sort of curfew, pensioners were paid early last month to ensure that they were able to purchase their necessities.
Mr. Speaker, the ILO recognizes adequate housing as a basic human right and so does this government.
Earlier this year, on May 28th to be exact, the Board signed a contract for the construction of its first affordable housing programme, totaling seventeen million, nine hundred and thirty-nine thousand, one hundred and four dollars and thirty-two cents ($17,939,104.32). I am pleased to report that construction on 7.414 acres of the Joe’s Hill property commenced on July 1, 2020. The project, comprising the construction of twenty-five (25) buildings, will include fifty-two (52) residential units (of a mix of one, two- and three-bedroom living quarters) and a commercial space.
This Honourable House and the good people of the Virgin Islands should note that at the end of August, notable progress had been made on the property. The existing roadways were cleared and a lower entrance to the property (in the Long Bush area) was created. The upper retaining wall (at the Joe’s Hill entrance) had been poured up to 60% of its final height and backfilling works had commenced. The foundations for the 3, three-storey condos are far advanced and the slabs for the ground floor levels near completion, and the backfill for the lower retaining wall is slated for September.
Mr. Speaker, as we are all aware, the imposition of compulsory curfews in the Territory due to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many adjustments to everyday living. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, the project did not escape the reach of COVID-19 as some restrictions were inevitably placed on the worksite and the efforts of the construction crew. The construction crew made several adjustments, such as: i) suspending heavy works on the site during the September two-week 16-hr curfew, and ii) limiting activities to include backfill works only.
Despite these modifications, I have received assurances that the project is not at risk at this stage as the original construction schedule has enough flexibility built-in to account for possible delays in the supply chain (among other variables) due to the ongoing pandemic.
Mr. Speaker, it, therefore, pleases me to report that to date we have not received any indication from the Contractor that an extension for completion of the project would be required. That said, the project is on track and in line with its contracted completion period of 1275 whole days or roughly 3.5 years.
Mr. Speaker, as it concerns NHI, following a series of meetings with local network providers, the new protocols for evaluation, management and billing were implemented effective January 1, 2020. NHI continues to evaluate the system to find ways to reduce its claim expenses, while at the same time responding to its beneficiaries’ needs in an effective and efficient manner.
From January 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020, claims totaled $16.95 million compared to $20.12 million for the same period in 2019.
Prior to the provision of the grant funding, payments to Providers were 6 months behind. Providers are now paid up to July 2020. To date, the $7.5 Million stimulus for NHI support have been expended.
We will continue to do our best to assist all beneficiaries as best we can.
I thank you Mr. Speaker.