• The Star Staff

With thousands still waiting for some form of jobless relief, Labor chief acknowledges...

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

With thousands of islanders still waiting to collect either the unemployment insurance payment or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Puerto Rico Labor and Human Resources (DTRH by its Spanish initials) Secretary Carlos Rivera Santiago said Wednesday that although he is not satisfied that over 24 percent claimants have yet to receive any financial aid, the agency is moving to use every resource available to speed things up.

Rivera Santiago said his department is developing a new platform to aid PUA claimants, collaborating with more than 20 municipalities and hiring more than 100 temporary employees to make sure citizens receive their unemployment checks. However, when the Star asked the secretary if he was aware that citizens could take legal action against the DTRH over the unemployment insurance payment delays, Rivera Santiago said that although he is aware that the agency has room for improvement, over 76 percent of claimants are already receiving their unemployment benefit payments.

Labor law experts told the Star on Tuesday that a mandamus against the agency could be issued for not fulfilling a ministerial duty as part of a claim for damages.

“More than 530,000 people today are collecting their unemployment benefits, $2.9 billion have been disbursed in five months, and we have received more than 695,000 unemployment forms. In a typical year, we handle more than 48,000 unemployment applications,” Rivera Santiago said. “In the midst of a never-before-seen historical event, that’s something positive, but obviously, there’s a lot that needs to improve. I won’t get into the legal determination that a person might make, that’s what the courts are for, but, certainly, the department is doing its job, we’re trying to speed things up as fast as we can.”

Meanwhile, when the Star asked if it was fair for claimants who haven’t received any compensation since the pandemic began in March, Rivera Santiago said “it was definitely not fair;” nonetheless, every case had to be investigated as all cases are not the same. He said further that people have requested both unemployment and PUA thinking that the latter was a stimulus check, causing them to have to return the checks.

“For example, if we have a case that was a dismissal, the citizen might establish that they were fired without fair cause for any reason, and their employer said they were fired due to a disciplinary measure. That’s a case that we have to investigate,” he said. “We must verify each case. We must get into every detail as one case is not the same as the other.”

The Star also asked if unemployment claimants who are still waiting to receive any compensation from the commonwealth will have to wait until the end of the year, given that Rivera Santiago said in an interview on Radio Isla that he promised that every claimant would receive their checks before the year ended. The Labor chief clarified that he wanted to stabilize the system as the department receives new claims every two weeks.

“When I said that I want to stabilize [the department] in some way, it’s because we keep receiving unemployment claims due to citizens having to do so every two weeks, and biweekly, they have to claim if they worked or not during the two weeks prior to the claim, and so on; that’s how unemployment works,” he said. “Another case is that the citizen might be eligible, they claimed the first two weeks, got a check and think that they didn’t have to make any other arrangements, that the checks will keep coming.”

Meanwhile, when the Star asked if the DTRH has planned how to disburse the weekly $400 from the executive order that President Donald Trump signed on Aug. 8, Rivera Santiago said the department has held conversations with the federal government, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other entities. One of the alternatives discussed was that unemployed workers could receive $300 a week from federal funds and $100 a week from commonwealth funds, in addition to the compensation from the Unemployment Insurance benefits.

“According to information provided [by the federal government], a second option is that if a person receives $100 or more from the state’s unemployment trust fund, the [Labor] Department can count those $100 as state funds and receive the additional $300,” Rivera Santiago said. “At the moment, we’re still finishing the application process with the federal government. I must mention that we expect that the benefits will be up to $300.”

As for the citizens who still haven’t received retroactive payments from the PUA, which paid $600 a week to workers who did not qualify for the state’s unemployment insurance until July 31, Rivera Santiago said they must submit their case to a new online platform that is under development by software company Fast Enterprises, which is the same company that developed the Treasury Department’s SURI website. The official told the Star that netizens will provide their information, including routing number and banking account, and the payments will be made via direct deposit within 24-72 hours after the application is submitted.

“We won’t go live or open the platform until we make sure that platform works as it should,” Rivera Santiago said. “The idea is for the platform to validate the information with DTRH. It will be much faster; citizens don’t have to provide as much information as they can validate it within the system and, from the department’s perspective, move human resources from [the] PUA [section] to redirect them to Unemployment to reinforce this area as the PUA section should run faster.”

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