‘Govt has less than 30 days to act on $7.7M for Lost Wages Assistance’

Guerrero says he will make final push to get answers from FEMA on waiver request

Patrick Guerrero, the governor’s authorized representative, will make a final push this week to get an answer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency on the CNMI’s request for a waiver on the 25% matching fund requirement of the $7.7 million that was approved for the Lost Wages Assistance program.

Speaking at the House’s Committee on Health and Welfare meeting last Friday, Guerrero said the latest communication he got was last Jan. 6, which is an official letter from Robert Fenton, regional administrator of FEMA Region 9, acknowledging the receipt of their Sept. 10 letter that asked for the waiver. Guerrero said he actually wrote that letter to FEMA and that Fenton had replied that the CNMI’s request is being processed and that he’ll (Guerrero) be notified once a decision is made.

Lost Wages Assistance Program grants come from FEMA and the intended beneficiaries are workers who have been unemployed or are working few hours due to disruptions caused by COVID-19. The CNMI was approved for $7.7 million last Sept. 16, 2020, for this purpose but it came with a 25% cost share requirement.

“So if we paid out $300 for the first three weeks or six weeks, then the CNMI government would have to cover the $100 cost share. So, for a total of $400 payment, that translates to over $2 million,” he said.

Other than the reply letter from Fenton, Guerrero said that that was the only communication he got from FEMA between September 2020 and Jan. 6, 2021, despite numerous requests for an update.

Guerrero said he intends to ask for one last update this week. “If we don’t pay out anything by March 27, we forfeit this amount,” he said.

He said they’ve been sort of hanging and hoping that their waiver request would get approved but, with less than 30 days to go before the grant expires, he believes that they have to make a quick decision whether or not they could source the funding. “And I will do that in the coming next few days to [make] one final push,” he said. “In my push in the coming days is where we are to make a decision and if there’s no other source of funding, then I guess I would ask FEMA for one last [time]. …If we pay this today, when, how much time are we [going to] get to pay the share, and that may be a factor in our decision to commit to this program.”

Guerrero said that Guam asked for a waiver as well. “They [Guam] did get FEMA’s go ahead to go and pay and not have to pay with the share right then and there,” he said.

Guerrero said the Department of Labor and Finance Secretary David Atalig are aware of the situation, and they’re always following up on this as well.

Committee chair Rep. Christina E. Sablan (D-Saipan) told Guerrero that Atalig was recently in the House of Representatives’ chamber for the House Ways and Means Committee meeting, during which lawmakers did inquire about the LWA program.

Sablan urged Guerrero to follow up with Atalig because Atalig appears to be under the impression that an $8-million match is required. “And I recall that you had said it was lower than that,” she said.

Sablan pointed out that the CNMI is expecting a windfall of federal funds whose requirements for use will be quite flexible and could be used for government operations. Sablan said that, according to Atalig, these funds could also be used for the local match.

“So, if time is of the essence, if we could possibly lose out on $7 [million] to $8 million, that could go right into the pockets of people who really need it, who needed it, you know, last year,” she said.

Guerrero said he has already alerted FEMA that, should the CNMI decide in the next few days to put up a local match, there is an allowable extension of time so the CNMI doesn’t lose out on the LWA funding entirely.

Guerrero said he will report back to the House Committee on Health and Welfare this week.

Guerrero also said the CNMI government got approved for a community disaster loan for Super Typhoon Yutu.

“It doesn’t have to be in millions and millions of dollars, but covers some shortfalls. In this event, in particular, the almost automatic $5 million that you get could also be used for this and any other activity,” he said.

Guerrero said that’s one of the options on the table.

Ferdie De La Torre | Reporter
Ferdie Ponce de la Torre is a senior reporter of Saipan Tribune. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and has covered all news beats in the CNMI. He is a recipient of the CNMI Supreme Court Justice Award. Contact him at ferdie_delatorre@Saipantribune.com
Disclaimer: Comments are moderated. They will not appear immediately or even on the same day. Comments should be related to the topic. Off-topic comments would be deleted. Profanities are not allowed. Comments that are potentially libelous, inflammatory, or slanderous would be deleted.