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Housing Authority Trying to Avoid Layoffs

Jan. 7, 2008 — The V.I. Housing Authority expects to be $4 million in the hole this year, a budget deficit that might force the agency to lay off 60 of its employees throughout the territory.
But the news isn't at its worst just yet — the authority's executive director is currently in talks with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (which took control of the Housing Authority in 2003) to increase the agency's federal subsidy, handing over the money needed to keep the employees on staff.
"The problem has been that there is no money," said Robert Graham, the Housing Authority's executive director, on Wednesday. "But I'm still working with HUD to see what options we have available to us, and am expecting to hear something from them this week."
When asked whether he would rehire the employees if HUD provides the $4 million, Graham simply replied, "Yes."
The agency also suffered a $2-million deficit in 2008 — a problem which, in part, reflects the territory's high cost of living, Graham said. The subsidy also doesn't really take into account increases in construction costs, he said.
It is not clear which employees will be laid off, but the cuts will be made "across the board," Graham said.
While union officials say they are working with the employees to negotiate severance packages and make sure the staff members will return to the job once the financial picture improves, other local agencies have been proactive in addressing the situation.
"I have spoken to some of the employees already in a personal nature, but none have officially contacted me as yet," said Labor Commissioner Albert Bryan Jr. "But they (Housing Authority officials) did tell us that a layoff might off occur. So, in this situation, what Labor does is assemble a rapid-response team, which will go in there, assess any skills the employees have and try to match them to jobs in the community, or retrain them in areas where there are jobs available. We also let them know about unemployment services — Labor has extended benefits, and the employees could qualify for nine months at this point."
Recently the territory has experienced "a lot of layoffs," Bryan said.
"Because of the nature of our hospitality industry in particular, which is seasonal, and the condition of the economy, we have been experiencing these kind of layoffs, lately," he said. "But I think that it's going to start going uphill for a little while — in the first and second quarter (of fiscal year 2009), with the season coming, we will see some hires, but the third quarter, as things begin to taper off, will be harder."
Bryan anticipates an upswing toward the end of the year.
"But hopefully, in the fourth quarter, we will begin to see some of the capital-improvement projects rolling out from Hovensa and the government, which — coupled with a new federal stimulus package — should help things improve," he said. "It's never easy in a case like this, but we're trying to help as much as possible."
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