• The Star Staff

Local gov’t agencies prepare distribution plans after Congress passes COVID relief bill

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

After the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly in favor of a $900 billion economic stimulus package on Monday evening that includes more relief for small businesses and direct payments to families suffering from the coronavirus pandemic, the island Treasury and Labor and Human Resources departments said Tuesday that they are contacting federal authorities to issue distribution plans for the “second round” of aid.

Treasury Secretary Francisco Parés Alicea told the STAR that the approved bill is “very similar to the [first stimulus] bill that was managed [in] May.”

“The only difference is that the amount of money that citizens will receive is of lesser value than the earlier stimulus aid,” Parés Alicea said, referring to the fact that the latest package will provide checks of up to $600 per individual, $1,200 per married couple, and $600 per dependent child.

The Treasury chief said a draft distribution plan is being prepared for submission to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and added that “if the distribution plan draft is approved as it is written, the majority of citizens won’t have to take additional actions as we could collect the necessary information from the earlier project.”

“That puts us in a position that once the plan is authorized, we can initiate the program that has already begun, finish it and distribute the corresponding payments,” Parés Alicea said, adding that it could take from three weeks to a month to “pay up to 90 percent of Puerto Ricans.”

New requests, meanwhile, will be managed through Treasury’s digital platform, SURI, he said.

As for the expected wait time, Parés Alicea noted that although U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said direct payments could begin reaching individual Americans as early as next week, Puerto Rico has to wait until the IRS authorizes his agency’s distribution plan.

“To prove how prepared we are in this phase, I estimate that 2.95 million citizens, either as an individual or as a couple, will be benefited by this program, whose cost on the island would be approximately $1.7 billion,” he added. “That lets us know who will be able to benefit from this round.”

Regarding citizens who still haven’t received the $1,200 from the earlier stimulus plan, Parés Alicea said around 100,000 people were unable to receive it as they didn’t qualify for financial aid.

“What were some of the reasons for declining the $1,200?” the STAR asked.

“We weren’t able to validate their Social Security number and name with federal government records, or they were claimed as dependents on another citizen’s income tax return,” the Treasury chief said.

Labor and Human Resources Secretary Carlos Rivera Santiago, meanwhile, said via a written statement that “we remain vigilant on federal legislation regarding the new economic stimulus package to address the effects of the pandemic.”

“In that sense, [the package] would be providing an additional $300 per week [to unemployment beneficiaries] from December 26, 2020 until March 14, 2021,” Rivera Santiago said.

“In the case of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), it has been extended and it will phase out gradually, as it is a temporary federal program that covers both self-employed and professional services workers until March 14, 2021,” he added. “As soon as the compensation is approved, and guidelines are established for the use and management of those funds, we will be communicating all details to the public, including those who qualify for these benefits.”

As the STAR reported Tuesday, the deal also includes a $284.5 billion extension of the Paycheck Protection Program for small enterprises and more money to aid coronavirus vaccine distribution.

At press time, President Donald Trump had yet to sign the coronavirus relief bill.

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