USVI Labor Commissioner Advocates for Reduced Unemployment Benefits to Stimulate Workforce Reentry
Commissioner Gary Molloy of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Labor (VIDOL) has proposed a 50% reduction in unemployment benefits to encourage more residents to return to work, as labor force participation in the territory remains low at 49.2%.
Though the unemployment rate in the USVI has fallen by half from 8.4% in January 2022 to 4.2% by the end of the year, Molloy believes there is still room for improvement. He asserts that the current unemployment benefits of $642 per week are too generous and that reducing the maximum duration of benefits from 26 weeks to 13 weeks could encourage more people to search for employment.
The commissioner hopes that such a move would not only save the government over $8,000 per individual in benefits but would also lead to a lower unemployment rate in the USVI. He envisions a possible future scenario with a 0% unemployment rate, though economists generally agree that such a rate is almost unattainable due to structural factors and job transition periods.
Molloy acknowledged that job market conditions and the high cost of living in the USVI are driving residents to leave the territory, resulting in a smaller employment pool. He cited the opportunity for higher wages and the high cost of living as the two main factors influencing residents to emigrate.
When asked whether reducing unemployment benefits might negatively impact those who genuinely need them, Molloy responded that he did not believe so, given the potential for a zero percent unemployment rate once eligible individuals return to work as quickly as possible. He also mentioned that the unemployment insurance system has built-in provisions for assistance in the event of another disaster, such as the Extended Benefits (EB) period, which would offer an additional 13 weeks of benefits at the maximum weekly amount.
The Labor Commissioner contends that shortening the duration of unemployment benefits is a policy the USVI should consider as part of its response to the ongoing labor shortage. He hopes to increase the labor force participation rate and further decrease the unemployment rate in the near future.
Mr. Molloy also highlighted that the territory’s current unemployment rate does not accurately represent the number of people who are not engaged in the workforce. He asserted that cutting the duration of unemployment benefits could incentivize more people to return to work, thus better reflecting the true employment situation in the USVI.
In addition to the reduction in unemployment benefits, the Labor Commissioner suggested implementing additional measures to stimulate the local workforce. These could include job training and placement programs, apprenticeships, and educational initiatives aimed at helping Virgin Islanders develop in-demand skills that would make them more competitive in the job market.
Mr. Molloy also emphasized the importance of engaging with local businesses to identify and address the specific needs of the USVI workforce. Collaboration between the government, private sector, and educational institutions would be crucial in developing a comprehensive strategy to bolster the territory’s labor force and reduce unemployment.
Finally, the Labor Commissioner pointed out that any changes to unemployment benefits would need to be carefully considered and approved by the 35th Legislature before implementation. As such, the proposed reduction would be just one component of a larger, multi-faceted approach to addressing the territory’s labor challenges.
The idea of reducing unemployment benefits has generated mixed reactions among USVI residents, with some supporting the proposal as a necessary measure to boost the workforce, while others express concerns about the potential negative consequences for those who rely on the benefits during their job search.
As the USVI grapples with the challenges of a low labor force participation rate and ongoing labor shortages, the territory will need to continue exploring innovative solutions to help its residents secure stable, well-paying jobs and contribute to the local economy.