Work hour cut for food stamp office lifted

Posted on Feb 24 2012

Gov. Benigno R. Fitial lifted the 16-hour work cut for the Nutrition Assistance Program to address a backlog in the eligibility review for some 900 food stamp beneficiaries, acting governor Eloy S. Inos confirmed yesterday.

All other federally funded programs in the CNMI continue to have a 64-hour work biweekly.

Inos said that NAP’s austerity exemption is “for a limited period” and “just to catch up on the backlog.”

“The governor had directed that they go ahead and hire some folks for a period of 60 days so they can start going over the backlog. That’s temporary hire for additional staff and allows other staff to work so that we can catch up,” Inos said in an interview at the burial for U.S. Army SSG George Joseph A. Sablan yesterday at the Veterans Cemetery in Marpi.

The exemption is for 60 days or two months, starting early this month.

“I understand we’re talking about eligibility review for some 900 [food stamp] recipients,” the acting governor added.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan (Ind-MP), in a separate interview, said he’s “pleased to know that NAP staff whose positions are paid for by federal funds have been exempted from austerity measures.”

“These individuals now earn more, are likely better able to pay their bills, and can also spend more money into our economy,” he said last night.

Sablan said he “hopes that the governor does not stop here but rather that he be just as fair to all other government employees whose positions are paid for by federal grants and exempt these positions from austerity measures just as he has done for those working for the food stamps office.”

For weeks, recipients have been complaining of delays in the release of their food stamps. Among the reasons for the delays is the austerity Fridays, which eat up the time needed to verify the eligibility of new and existing recipients.

Inos said eligibility review is needed periodically so that NAP will be able to determine whether a food stamp recipient, after a certain period of time, is still eligible to receive food assistance.

“Those recipients need to come in for periodic review on continued eligibility and so one of the reasons why they have not been able to get continued benefits, because they have not gone through an eligibility review process,” he said.

A visit to the NAP office in As Lito yesterday confirmed that the office has now been operating during so-called austerity Fridays. An employee said they are open on Fridays from 7:30am to 4:30pm.

A sign on the exterior wall of the office reads, “Attention to all NAP recipients. The NAP Office will be opened (sic) every Friday. Thank you from the management.”

NAP employees refused to comment about the specific tasks they have been doing when they got an exemption from the austerity Fridays and referred inquiries to the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs’ main office, which was closed on austerity Fridays.

The federally funded NAP administers the food stamp program in the CNMI. It is under DCCA, whose other federally funded divisions or units are still on 64-hour work biweekly.

All other federally funded programs in the CNMI are also included in the austerity Fridays.

Interior Assistant Secretary for Insular Affairs Tony Babauta earlier requested exemption for the Interior-funded Brown Tree Snake Control Program and Coral Reef Protection Program in the CNMI, in a Jan. 25 letter to Fitial. The administration has yet to decide on Babauta’s request.

Inos said there are available federal funds for NAP to remain open on Fridays so it can address the backlog in eligibility reviews.

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