Those who were overpaid during the first phase of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and are now awaiting their PUA 3 checks will have their overpayments deducted from their PUA 3 benefits, according to CNMI Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente
This was learned soon after members of the community reached out to Saipan Tribune to share their most recent struggles with the PUA program, one being that their PUA 3 payments were allegedly put on hold because it was just recently discovered that they were overpaid for PUA 1.
Benavente clarified that because DOL recently went back to audit claims from PUA 1, they have discovered that there were individuals who either knowingly or unknowingly misfiled their earnings, resulting in overpayments.
Due to these overpayments, CNMI DOL held off on releasing these individuals’ PUA 3 benefits until a payment agreement is set. However, Benavevente said DOL will have to remove at least 50% of the total PUA 1 overpayment from their PUA 3 benefits.
“We are just finally going back and auditing thousands of PUA 1 claimants who had mistakenly received an overpayment because many times, the PUA claimant would say on their portal, ‘I earned $0 this week’ and then they upload their paystubs that say they earned $200 that week. That’s what we call misfiled earnings. Unfortunately, the misfiled earnings that they filed for from December to March, that’s a lot of weeks,” Benavente said. “Once we have processed an overpayment procedure or notice with the claimant, we’re satisfied with that. If they’re still out of work, they’re still at reduced hours, then we’re releasing PUA 3 based on the fact that we already have a written agreement between CNMI DOL and the PUA claimant stating, ‘Here’s what I’m going to pay on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.’ Many of our claimants are barely making it. If they say they can only make $50 a month, they can pay $50 a month. But here’s the catch. In order to recover PUA benefits that were overpaid, we try to take 50% from their PUA 3 benefits earned and they can pay the 50% on a monthly basis.”
Benavente said that, although they have to recover overpaid funds, DOL wants to work out a fair agreement that won’t push claimants further into poverty and won’t jeopardize the relationship between CNMI DOL and the U.S. Department of Labor.
“The CNMI Department of Labor is not trying to delay these funds or push people further into poverty. We’re trying to recover funds as best as we can. But we try to consider the situation like, are they working? Are they on reduced hours? Are they not working? So we can come up with a way to assist claimants with a payment plan that will not push them further below the poverty line, or make things more difficult. If we can make the effort to help the applicant pay back some of these overpayments, then we can show USDOL that we made that effort and they can keep granting us funds for a continuation of PUA or any other type of assistance,” she said.