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A dignified response for displaced workers

The Department of Labor and Human Resources must move to adopt strategies to put an end to the unfair wait of thousands of workers who lost their income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Next Monday, June 15, marks three months since the coronavirus emergency was declared on the island. The government's decision to order the shutdown to prevent the spread of the strain of the coronavirus was recognized as necessary. However, the crisis in the Department of Labor and Human Resources, triggered by the flood of cases not addressed or delays in disbursing the aid, reveals the lack of projections and proactivity at all government levels.

In the face of an unprecedented public health emergency, the agency has shown a lack of agility resulting in an overly bureaucratic culture. This agency, like other state offices, tried to deal with the crisis at the usual pace, instead of diligently assuming the urgency the pandemic imposed.

The flood of unemployment insurance claims should have been anticipated before stay at home measures were ordered. On the contrary, the order sent public employees home without considering that this measure would leave thousands of private-sector employees without support for an indefinite period.

When the Unemployment Compensation Bureau was reactivated, the schedule continued in regular working hours to assist tens of thousands of affected workers. They did not even modify the procedures to simplify payment request forms. Thus, questions left over from the health crisis, such as whether one is actively seeking employment, have led to unnecessary setbacks for applicants. One of the things that have caused anxiety among these workers is the so-called disputed points, sometimes produced by leave settlements, which can be verified through employer certification to adjust payment without duplicating the process with the applicant.

Chaos worsened when the Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH, Spanish acronym), unable to meet the demand by phone or online, forced people from all over the island, without jobs and without income, to come to the agency's headquarters in San Juan to join the car traffic jam in Hato Rey for hours. Office times remained unchanged for a situation that required extended hours. They did not implement a comprehensive information campaign to guide applicants on how to avoid mistakes when filling out forms or what documents to have ready to expedite the assistance. Some of these errors could be corrected with guidance or focusing on details.

This wait has led to despair and violence, to the point that over the past few days there have been attacks and threats in the lines. It is urgent to end with bureaucracy layers that prevent these workers from receiving what is rightfully theirs. It is necessary to ensure that they receive the compensation they are entitled to retroactively.

Former secretaries, workers, and retired agency employees have offered to help in the monumental effort to address several requests never seen before in the agency. They must find other alternatives seeking to avoid forcing people to get up early to get an appointment without the certainty that they will be assisted. The government has databases of all private-sector workers and self-employed workers duly registered with the Treasury.

Meanwhile, in the Senate's evaluation of Carlos Rivera's appointment to the DTRH secretary's position, the candidate will have to demonstrate that he has the skills, the vocation to serve, and the sensitivity to help the thousands of workers still waiting for help.

The poor management of the crisis in the DTRH leaves a key lesson: every agency must respond with a vision to optimize responses to help citizens and maintain a proactive and creative performance, supported by dynamic leadership with the best skills to communicate effectively.