Recovery Workers Continue to Struggle in St. Thomas

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Surrounded in unpaid receipts, Larry Lewis packs up his bags to head home.

“I’m leaving at a loss which is a lot more than the money they promised me,” Larry Lewis, a recovery worker from Chicago said.

Lewis is just one of the dozens of recovery workers that hasn’t been paid.

He came down seven months ago. First he went to St. Croix to help Virgin Islanders rebuild after the storms. But he was never paid for his work. Then the same thing happened in St. Thomas.

“I saved everything because I suspected this was going to be a problem.”

Lewis was one of the few workers that were willing to speak out. Others fearing retaliation from their bosses.

“They’re scared to talk because they’re afraid they’ll lose whatever little right to the hotel they have,” Lewis added.

Most of the workers are staying here at this hotel. They shared that there are four men in one room. Many of them don’t have enough food to eat, or if they do they are splitting something like a Subway sandwich four ways. All said all they want to do is get paid so they can continue the work that they were brought here to do.”

Last week’s protest brought backlash from various companies that were named like in this phone call to a worker.

But there is a process for how the money is distributed.

First from FEMA then to the US Virgin Islands Housing Finance Authority and the Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency. Then down to the contractors to the subcontractors. Then to the workers we met with here.

In a statement released just days after this protest from the VIHFA, they said they are expediting outstanding payments due to contractors working on the Territory’s FEMA Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power Program, otherwise known as STEP and known locally as Emergency Home Repair VI.

They add there has been a “complicated” approval process for invoices submitted by the program’s prime contractor AECOM.

They said FEMA releases the funds through its local agency counterpart, VITEMA. From VITEMA the invoices must go through an audited approval process. Then VI Department of Finance must approve the payments before they are released to VIHFA.

However, FEMA will not make any payments until repairs have passed inspection. Another reason for the delayed payments.

While those funds wait to be distributed, these workers, wait too, so they can finish the job or go home.

VIHFA Executive Director, Daryl Griffith said they are currently awaiting the releaseof a $5.7 million payment and a $20 million payment within two weeks.

They will then immediately pay AECOM which in turn is responsible for paying its’ subcontractors.