Sept. 26, 2001 – Nearly 200 workers laid off on St. Thomas and St. John in the two weeks since the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., have filed for unemployment compensation, Labor Commissioner Cecil Benjamin said Wednesday night at a meeting hosted by the Labor Department.
"We have been inundated with these workers coming into our small offices, filling the place," he said at a forum held in the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel on St. Thomas to disseminate information to hospitality workers. About 40 people were in attendance, including a number of Labor officials whose presentations took about an hour and a half at the start of the meeting.
Benjamin told the gathering that his department has "deep concerns about the effects of the tragedy. We will be affected, but we don't know how far, if it will be temporary or not." H added that it is his feeling "that people will fly again, but we don't know when."
He also said Labor will seek to determine whether some hotels have used the terrorism as an excuse to cut back their labor forces. He said his suspicions were aroused by evidence of "one or more" hotels advertising vacant job positions while also laying people off.
But he also said that most hotels have been cooperating with his department to weather the crisis and that the investigations are not meant to put his department in an adversarial relationship with the hotels.
In the first two hours of the forum, no one attending claimed to have been laid off under questionable circumstances.
Most of those who have filed unemployment claims in the last two weeks worked in the hotel industry, Benjamin said, and so far, there has not been a rush of applicants from other tourism-related sectors such as retail and restaurants.
David Yamada, general manager of the Renaissance Grand Beach Resort, said Wednesday that the resort has not laid anyone off but that employees have been encouraged to take their vacations now to trim back on staff size.
Booking of reservations has slowed down dramatically, but "we hope it will rebound," Yamada said. "Layoffs are the last thing we want to do."
Beverly Nicholson, executive director of the St. Thomas-St. John Hotel and Tourism Association, said member hotels recorded a grand total of 80 bookings in the week of Sept. 18-25, compared with 389 in the same time period last year.
Because of fear of flying, the downturn in the economy and uncertainty of what is going to happen if America begins a military campaign, "People are just not making the commitment to travel," she said. "We're not seeing people's confidence returning yet."
Benjamin indicated that the Labor Department would be able to handle all claims for unemployment benefits and that the department had enough funds to cover the increase in claims.
In fact, the pool for jobless payouts, V.I. Unemployment Trust Fund, into which employers pay taxes annually, is considered excessively large by federal standards. It was recently calculated at $61 million, enough money to pay 3.71 years of benefit checks under normal circumstances. The federal Labor Department regards a 2-year cushion as adequate. The maximum payout is $233 a week.
At Wednesday night's meeting, Benjamin and Nicholson gave no public indication of the verbal blows they had traded earlier. Tuesday's V.I. Daily News carried a letter from Nicholson criticizing the Labor commissioner for having "recently stated to the press that the hotel industry had used Sept. 11 as a means to get rid of employees" and calling his comments "irresponsible." She posed the question, "Is it possible that Mr. Benjamin has not read a newspaper or turned on a television in the past 11 days?"
She then cited statistics: "More than 100,000 individuals in the U.S. airline industry, 10,000 at Boeing and a half-million hotel employees nationwide have lost their jobs … A recent poll indicated that only 30 percent of Americans would fly if necessary. And only 7 percent would do so willingly." St. Thomas and St. John hotels, she said, "have lost 18,000 room nights over the next 60 days, resulting in more than $4 million in lost business. In September of 2000 hotel occupancy for St. Thomas and St. John was 42 percent; we would be surprised if occupancy this September reaches 15 percent."
Her letter also stated that the hotel association "contacted that department to see how we could be of assistance" with the forum. But "instead of conversing with us to determine how we could work together to get through this very difficult period, the commissioner found it more expedient to set up an adversarial situation," she wrote. "This is so pointless at a time when we should be working together."
In response, Benjamin issued a press release Wednesday afternoon saying he was "appalled at the unwarranted personal attack on his character and integrity." Nicholson, he charged, "did not even have the common decency or respect to contact me with her concerns. And to further indicate that I was oblivious to the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, is downright absurd …"
In the release, Benjamin noted that the meeting had been planned months earlier as part of an ongoing series. It was, he said, intended as a forum for sharing information with all hospitality industry employees "and not only with those that are affected by layoff or reduced hours."
Addressing his earlier accusation that hoteliers were using the terrorist situation as an excuse to lay off workers, he said, "We suspect that there are some businesses that have taken advantage of this sad situation, and our department can validate this."
"We in no way intend to cause an affront to any business," he stated in the release. "The Virgin Islands Department of Labor is Business Friendly." He said he plans to work closely with the private sector "in our mission to promote economic stability and protect and develop the territory's workforce through establishing partnerships with businesses."
Jean Etsinger also contributed to this report.


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