By Johnnie Rosario
As workers with reduced hours stress over recent announcements from the Guam Department of Labor that they are now ineligible to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Congressman San Nicolas has engaged the issue from multiple fronts.
"The extension of PUA in December did not change the law regarding eligibility, so no one eligible to receive aid should be getting cutoff," opened Congressman San Nicolas. "My office has verified on official resources that California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington are still accepting partial PUA applications, and we understand the CNMI is as well," Congressman San Nicolas continued. "We have confirmed that the statute is unchanged and Guam's cutoff is inconsistent with the law, and as an abundance of caution we have further notified the Biden Administration and the Democratic Caucus of these circumstances," Congressman San Nicolas added.
"It was always and still is Congress’s intent to ensure that working Americans who became unemployed, partially unemployed, or unavailable to work directly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, who are some of the hardest hit by the crisis, are cared for while our economy safely and cautiously reopens," reads a letter to President Biden from San Nicolas and 12 other members of Congress.
The Guam Department of Labor is following guidance issued by the U.S. Department of Labor on January 8, 2021 that disqualified people working reduced hours from unemployment aid. Members of Congress are claiming the guidance is inconsistent with federal law. Guam appears to be the only jurisdiction in the country following the guidance, as the CNMI and other places are accepting applications from people with reduced work hours.
While States, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico have local Unemployment Insurance (UI) programs in addition to PUA, many of them require a certain period of participation by employees in order for them to qualify. "During the period of the CARES ACT many businesses shut down and subsequently re-opened with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, only to find themselves reducing operations and worker hours when loan resources dried up," Congressman San Nicolas explains. "These businesses that hired new workers and reduced their hours would have a workforce likely ineligible for local UI and dependent on federal PUA," Congressman San Nicolas continued. "If these workers were being cutoff anywhere else in the country there would be public uproar, and the fact that there is none underscores our concern that the Guam cutoff is not the reality anywhere else, and the Director of Guam DOL has not been able to verify otherwise," Congressman San Nicolas added.
As an abundance of caution, Congressman San Nicolas has secured a cross section of Members of Congress from across the country to have the Biden Administration review the program to make sure it is being applied fairly and not cutting off anyone. "We have transmitted a letter to the Biden Administration with support from Members in the CNMI, California, Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas - a cross section of the entire country - to review the information being relayed by the Guam Department of Labor from the U.S. Department of Labor to make sure that what is happening on Guam is clarified, so that the intent of the law to support workers and our economy is properly implemented," Congressman San Nicolas explains. "We will continue to employ every avenue necessary to ensure that the Guam PUA cutoff which is against statute does not stand," Congressman San Nicolas concludes.
The letter to Mr. Biden asks for his intervention to replace the January 8 U.S. DOL guidance memo:
"We strongly urge you act immediately upon taking office to resolve this impending complication. It would be foreseeable that this latest guidance would discourage businesses from attempting to employ even at a reduced capacity as it penalizes work, which is counterintuitive to the intent of the law to stabilize our economy. We ask that you either:
"Reconsider implementation of the new instruction that would prohibit employees whose hours were severely reduced, due to no fault of their own, while their place of employment continues to operate from applying for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits.
"Administratively allow reduced-work employees whose place of business is operational to qualify for benefits under the section. Congress equipped the Secretary of Labor with the ability to establish additional criteria for unemployment assistance."