Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente responded Wednesday to the comments of Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) regarding the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation programs.
“I wish that Congressman Kilili had come to me directly and respond[ed] to my letter to discuss the PUA and FPUC programs and to ensure the eligibility of CW workers. Both Gov. [Ralph DLG] Torres and I have continued to advocate for this from the onset of the federal assistance programs,” said Benavente. “We have asked and received the federal eligibility requirements from the U.S. Department of Labor, which has taken the position that CW workers do not qualify for the PUA and FPUC programs. In addition to my letter to the congressman, I have personally spoken to his key staff to clarify with the U.S. Department of Labor weeks ago.”
She added that the urgency to get PUA checks out has been the No. 1 priority of the governor and the department’s motivation to release checks to approved applications as soon as possible.
“Every single day, our staff here at the CNMI Department of Labor are working around the clock to process claims, assist applicants in completing applications, and answering inquiries as best as we can. We have always understood the urgency in this. Given the applications we have seen so far, we want to get these checks out immediately, but we are limited by our federal guidelines in order to ensure full compliance and approval of applications,” she said.
“As you are well aware, Guam received their PUA funding two weeks prior to the CNMI. Guam released the first batch of their payments just last week. As noted, we are ready to release the first batch of our checks within the next few days, and thus are on the same time track with regard to the release of PUA checks,” she added.
Benavente acknowledged the challenges to ensure compliance with federal guidelines, as well as with the HireMarianas web portal, which has also seen similar challenges in Guam, Palau, and the Federated States of Micronesia in their web portals, which is a shared server among the U.S. Pacific territories.
“There have been challenges, and we have worked very hard with the portal developers to immediately address them. As you are also well aware, the CNMI DOL has had to work closely through this entire process with the USDOL,” Benavente said. “There are very strict guidelines with regard to information collection, application development and application protocols. The CNMI DOL was required to create an online application portal and put in place a telephone and in-person application protocol.”
“In order to accomplish this, we also needed to train current staff and bring on and train reassigned public workers. Even the specific printers, ink, and paper checks required by the U.S. Department of Treasury had to be sourced and ordered. And all of this had to be done in the midst of a pandemic where protocols for the health and safety of staff and the public were put in place, which meant designing a set-up that was primarily open-air,” said Benavente.
“We are not removed from the tremendous financial hardships many are facing during this pandemic. We live here. Many are our own family members and friends. We hear from them every day, and our staff here at CNMI DOL have worked hard to get the program up and running for them and the many other families who need this assistance,” she said.
Benavente further noted that there was never a formal response to her regarding Sablan’s comments about the eligibility of CW workers.
“Gov. Torres, our business community, and CNMI DOL have advocated for the eligibility of CW workers because they are a vital part of our community and our economy, so we were pleased when Congressman Sablan provided the assurance in an April 9, 2020, news article that CWs are eligible. However, when we asked for guidance from USDOL, they said that they are not eligible—which was contrary to what our congressman claimed. We have asked the congressional office for assistance, but they haven’t formally responded to our request for clarification,” she said.
Benavente assures the disbursement of PUA checks by CNMI DOL in an expedient manner that is compliant with USDOL.
“While the USDOL has been proactive partners in this effort, the call for expediency in processing PUA and FPUC on the federal level is of utmost importance to the people of the CNMI. I thank [Rep. Raul] Grijalva (D-AZ) and [Rep. Bobby] Scott (D-VA) for their assistance and aid to the CNMI to work through the processes on the federal side and also to achieve a favorable finding on the eligibility of our CW workers for this important program,” she said. (PR)