Minority: DOL’s PUA operations was messy

House minority lawmakers call for independent audit on Labor’s system

House of Representatives minority members said their constituents have complained that the CNMI Department of Labor’s implementation of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation was so disorganized that it resulted in long lines and lengthy wait times, plus delays in receiving their benefits.

In a 13-page report that minority lawmakers generated from the feedback that they received from their constituents on the CNMI’s implementation of the PUA and FPUC programs, they identified 11 primary issues that people complained about, including frustrations with extremely long lines and wait times in excess of six hours to receive any service, especially during the earlier months of implementation of the PUA program.

Minority lawmakers shared the report Wednesday with Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente.

The other issues that the lawmakers highlighted in their report are payment delays and discrepancies, poor communications and lack of transparency, need for more training for Labor staff and a better casework management system, no priority of service for veterans, and inconsistent determinations of “qualified alien.”

The other issues include confusing forms and filing process, online portal glitches and lock-outs, teleworking claimants and off-island bank accounts in limbo, data entry errors and abrupt switches to paper checks, and devastating impacts of PUA delays on constituents’ lives.

House minority floor leader Rep. Christina Sablan (D-Saipan) signed the report. The other signatories are Reps. Franklin Babauta (Ind-Saipan), Edmund Villagomez (Ind-Saipan), Richard Lizama (D-Saipan), Sheila Babauta (D-Saipan), and Donald Manglona (Ind-Rota).

The lawmakers said they collected the concerns through emails and online surveys from nearly 200 respondents; listening session with a group of seven PUA claimants last Nov. 17; a forum organized by PUA claimants and labor advocates last Nov. 24 that was attended by 50 people; oral and written testimonies at a town hall held last Dec. 9 that was attended by over 200 people; and more than 100 individual casework files.

The lawmakers told Benavente that they are hoping that the feedback is helpful in improving the management and implementation of the PUA and FPUC programs in order to deliver services as quickly as possible to people in need.

The lawmakers said they believe that a thorough and independent audit of the system is warranted to identify and resolve the issues that are causing errors, delays, and frustration, especially as thousands of people still await full payments of their unemployment benefits.

Such audit is needed, they said, as additional federal unemployment assistance has been extended beyond December 2020, and as the Legislature considers establishing a CNMI unemployment insurance program.

On the issue of disorganized operations, the lawmakers said that when Labor began scheduling appointments, constituents observed that names would be called from rosters, but not at the actual times of appointments, and appointment backlogs required people to come back again and again.

Many expressed dismay at the lack of any public restrooms, despite the high volume of people waiting in line for hours at Labor, including senior citizens, people with sensitive health conditions, and individuals with children.

On the payment delay and discrepancies issue, constituents reported long delays in receiving benefit payments, with some indicating that they have not received any payments at all since filing their applications in June.

On poor communications and lack of transparency, numerous constituents expressed frustration that they were frequently unable to get through Labor by phone.

With respect to the need for more training and better casework management, constituents said that, in general, Labor staff need more training and support in order to be able to effectively assist people with their claims.

Pertaining to lack of priority of service for veterans, military veterans who have applied for PUA said that, although they have been told by Labor staff that, as veterans, they are entitled to priority of service, they have not actually been given priority at all.

On inconsistent determination of “qualified alien,” numerous constituents with C-11 immigration status reported inconsistencies in Labor’s determination of their eligibility as qualified aliens for PUA.

With regard to confusing forms and filing process issue, constituents said it would have been helpful if Labor issued clear and accurate guidance and had trained staff who were able to assist claimants in navigating the application process.

Constituents reported that they found the PUA website difficult to navigate and the portal “unstable,” especially in the beginning of the PUA program, freezing midway through the application process, or deleting supporting documents that were submitted online.

Constituents also reported that their PUA benefits were withheld or delayed because they did not have on-island bank accounts.

With respect to data entry errors and abrupt switches to paper checks, constituents complained that errors in data entry by Labor staff, especially errors in bank account and routing numbers resulted in direct deposits being rejected at their banks and, in some cases, of funds in their bank accounts being frozen for weeks until they were finally, after weeks or follow-up, able to get written explanations from Labor to their banks to resolve the matter.

Constituents reported experiencing food insecurity, being evicted from their homes or threatened with eviction, getting utilities disconnected, losing phone and internet service, being forced to withdraw from college classes, and having their vehicles repossessed by banks, as a result of protracted periods of unemployment and delays in the release of PUA benefits.

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
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