Gov’t, Labor Dept. unsure how to comply with $400 weekly jobless aid order

By The Star Staff

The Puerto Rico government could not say Monday how it will comply with President Donald Trump’s executive order that would pay up to $400 in weekly unemployment benefits, 25 percent of which the states and Puerto Rico are being asked to cover.

La Fortaleza referred questions on the subject to the Labor and Human Resources Department, which said it had yet to receive an official notification. Labor Secretary Carlos Rivera was not in a position to comment.

“The Secretary can’t comment at this time because he has not received an official notification,” the department said through its spokesman Enrique O’Neill. “The executive order also does not establish how the process will be run.”

Puerto Rico is currently negotiating various restructuring agreements to overhaul over $70 billion in debt.

After Democrats and the White House were unable to reach an agreement on a stimulus bill, Trump signed four executive orders Saturday directed at coronavirus relief.

Besides the order granting the unemployment benefits, Trump issued a memorandum on a payroll tax holiday for Americans earning less than $100,000 a year, an executive order on assistance to renters and homeowners, and a memorandum on deferring student loan payments until Dec. 31.

According to the order on unemployment benefits, states must agree to enter into a financial arrangement with the federal government for any unemployed person living there to receive any of the additional benefits. States must pick up the tab for 25 percent of the $400 additional benefit each person may be able to receive weekly in additional aid.

The president expects to use part of some $44 billion in disaster funds and money from the coronavirus relief fund to pay for the additional jobless aid.

“I am calling on States to use amounts allocated to them out of the CRF (Coronavirus Relief Fund), or other State funding, to provide temporary enhanced financial support to those whose jobs or wages have been adversely affected by COVID-19. These funds, including those currently used to support State unemployment insurance programs, may be applied as the State’s cost share with Federal DRF funds,” the order says. “To ensure that those affected by a loss in wages due to COVID-19 continue to receive supplemental benefits for weeks of unemployment ending no later than December 27, 2020, States should also identify funds to be spent without a Federal match should the total DRF balance deplete to $25 billion.”

Puerto Rico’s economy has been hurt by the coronavirus pandemic. In the week that ended Aug. 1, Puerto Rico received 24,115 requests for unemployment benefits. Labor and Human Resources Department numbers show that Puerto Rico had 973,000 employed individuals as of June of this year compared to 1 million in June 2019.

The island Treasury Department also did not provide a response as to whether it has the funds to cover the unemployment benefits.

Puerto Rico’s government bank accounts totaled $20.4 billion as of June 30, a 0.4 percent decrease over the balance on May 29.

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