Briseida Torres, secretaria del Trabajo. (GFR Media)

The Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, Spanish acronym) is in conversations with its technology services provider Evertec and the federal Department of Labor (DOL) to speed up the implementation of federally approved benefits for workers and displaced people due to the COVID-19 pandemic, agency head Briseida Torres Reyes said yesterday.

Although Torres Reyes has asked the DOL to modify its guidelines to implement part of the federal economic response to the pandemic, the official revealed yesterday that Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced has already signed an agreement with the federal agency so that the relief included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is extended to employees and employers in Puerto Rico.

Through this agreement with the DOL, the official said, those workers affected by the pandemic, but also employers, will be able to benefit from the relief package approved in Washington to address the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which until yesterday totaled more than 775,300 positive cases and over 37,000 deaths worldwide.

In an interview with El Nuevo Día, Reyes Torres offered details about the unemployment benefits included in the CARES Act. These are additional measures separate from the checks that the U.S. Treasury will send and that in Puerto Rico are estimated to be at least $1,200 per household. They are also separate from the locally approved support for self-employed workers and small businesses, totaling $500 and $1,200, respectively.

Torres Reyes did not specify when the benefits provided by the CARES Act will be effective and nor did she offer figures regarding the number of beneficiaries.

Based on the figures provided by the government, both initiatives could help nearly 300,000 workers on the island, including those who are self-employed.

An overview of these benefits.

Unemployment benefits for self-employed

Self-employed individuals will have the opportunity to claim unemployment benefits even if they do not contribute to unemployment insurance.

The aid will come through the federal CARES act, specifically through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), Reyes Torres said.

A self-employed worker, in principle, will be able to apply for unemployment benefits and receive at least $600, along with a "base" compensation to be established.

According to Torres Reyes, instead of coming through disaster unemployment assistance, relief for self-employed workers will come through the PUA.

This program will operate separately from the regular unemployment program and therefore, the claim process is not ready yet, Torres Reyes said.

Its scope and eligibility criteria will depend on what the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) establishes and that, in the context of the agreement between that agency and Puerto Rico.

The official did not want to specify how many people would benefit from the PUA.

However, in her address to the island when she ordered social isolation measures, Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced said that about 170,000 people in Puerto Rico are self-employed.

Unemployment Benefit

The federal CARES Act provides two benefits for unemployed people: it temporarily increases the benefit an unemployed individual receives and the period to receive such assistance.

Unemployment benefits increase by $600 per week. That means, for example, that if you receive $190 per week, the weekly benefit will increase to $790.

The increase will apply to pre-pandemic beneficiaries and new applicants.

The $600 increase in weekly unemployment pay will only be in effect for four months.

When this increase in weekly checks ends, which should be by July, the weekly unemployment pay in Puerto Rico will return to the previous levels established on the island.

Then, according to Torres Reyes, the programmed increase to the unemployment benefit would be implemented, that is, the minimum benefit would go from $33 per week to $60 and the maximum benefit, from $190 per week to $240.

Besides, the federal CARES Act extends unemployment benefits for 13 weeks. Generally speaking, unemployment benefits last 26 weeks. With this decision, the federal government has extended the benefit for 39 weeks, if necessary.

The extension of unemployment benefits due to the COVID-19 pandemic is separate from benefits that may have been approved for other situations such as unemployment assistance as a result of a disaster. For example, an individual receiving unemployment assistance after the earthquakes that hit the island last January, will continue receiving it for the period established for that case, and if it is necessary to extend it due to the pandemic, it will be decided case by case, the official said.

DTRH data before the coronavirus emergency indicated that just over 78,000 people in Puerto Rico received unemployment benefits.

How will these programs be paid?

Relief programs provided by the federal CARES Act, as well as those provided by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA), which complements the federal economic response plan to COVID-19, will be covered by the U.S. government.

In the case of unemployment benefits, Torres Reyes said, the federal government will contribute to state unemployment funds. The legislation provides two alternatives, although which has will be adopted has not been specified. One mechanism could be an allocation from the DOL to the state unemployment fund or certain transfers based on paid benefits, which would be done on a month-to-month basis.

According to the official, the increase in unemployment benefits should not affect the cost of the premium paid by employers for that insurance. "The aim is not to affect the employer, in terms of the payments issued due to the increase in applications due to the emergency," Torres Reyes said.

As of March 28, the DTRH had received 76,928 new unemployment claims.

In the case of emergency leaves granted through FFCRA, Torres Reyes said, it is the employer's responsibility to inform of the approval of both leaves to their workers. In the case of extended 12-week leave with partial pay to care for their children who have been unable to return to school or child care facilities because of the pandemic, the employer will be required to grant the worker's request. In any case, the DTRH secretary said, the employer's payment to the worker for such an extended leave will not exceed $10,000.

According to the DTRH secretary, employers that pay the leaves under FFCRA will claim that to the U.S. Treasury, through the payroll form that has to be filed before the federal Internal Revenue Service (IRS).


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