National Guardsmen Awaiting Pay Months After Hurricanes

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, US--Volunteers, as well as U.S. Virgin Island National Guardsmen, help to distribute supplies to local residents at the Omar Brown Sr. fire station on October 10, 2017. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, US--Volunteers, as well as U.S. Virgin Island National Guardsmen, help to distribute supplies to local residents at the Omar Brown Sr. fire station on October 10, 2017. (Photo by Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA)

ST. THOMAS -- Heading into the Christmas weekend, members of the V.I. National Guard, who responded alongside police officers and firefighters during the twin hurricanes of 2017, have not been paid for months, officials said Friday.

The problem stems from the nature of the response to the hurricane, said Master Sgt. and National Guard spokeswoman Karen Williams. Because V.I. National Guardsmen are technically federal employees working as contractors for the local government, they have higher requirements for documentation than the average government employee, Williams said.

"Most of us were paid until the end of September," she said.

However, paychecks have not yet cleared for October or November, Williams said.

The frantic nature of the response also contributed to the delay, Williams said.

"When you have that many folks on status being deployed on different locations on the island, accounting for who's been where at what time can be challenging," she said.

Once the appropriate forms are gathered and submitted, the V.I. Finance Department then has to process the documents before the Guardsmen can get paid, Williams said. Authorities were hopeful the paperwork could be processed by the end of the year, Williams said.

Williams was among the unpaid members of the National Guard, though she said her rank insulated her from the worst of the pay gap.

"For me, I'm a senior leader, I'm a senior executive," she said. "It's difficult to say that my economic means are the same as a junior guardsman or an army solider or an airman. I was where they were at one point."

"It is difficult for their expenses and mortgages and homes and families," she said.

Senators decried the gap in broad terms during a legislative session on Thursday, though they didn't offer specific solutions to address the problem.

"These guys in the National Guard haven't been paid," said Sen. Alicia Hansen at one point.

That sentiment was echoed by Senators Dwayne DeGraff, Janelle Sarauw and Novelle Francis Jr.

"When people work, they should be paid," Francis said. "Up to now, our national guard members have not been paid."

The reality is more complex, Williams said. A rush to pay all Guardsmen without the appropriate documentation could result in an error the opposite way.

"There's two sides," she said. "You don't want to pay some people an overly large amount."

Officials, including Brig. Gen. Deborah Howell, were working to address the gap, and additional personnel had been brought in accelerate the process, Williams said.

"There's no leader within the organization that doesn't want to see their folks paid," she said.

--This article is written by Brian O'Connor from Virgin Islands Daily News and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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