The turmoil in Puerto Rico’s unemployment system, in context
COVID-19 has resulted in an explosive surge of unemployment rates throughout the United States amid the need of reducing infections. These devastating measures have highlighted multiple weaknesses in Puerto Rico’s government that disproportionately affect lower-income families. With the loss of businesses in an already crippling economy, Puerto Rico’s unemployment program has failed to meet the needs of the people.
In the midst of the biggest economic depression in the territory’s history, while amassing a debt of over $72 billion and an additional $49 billion in pension obligations, Puerto Rico fell victim like many others to COVID-19. This required closure of the tourism industry and cruise industry, some of their biggest sources of income on the islands. These closures brought tax revenue to a screeching halt while simultaneously skyrocketing unemployment to the highest level in 40 years. The massive layoffs overwhelmed Puerto Rico’s unemployment program with many struggling families, on islands where 43% of the population already lives below the poverty line. Unable to keep up with the demand, the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources required massive reallocation costing $23,053,000 in 2020 alone from the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico. Despite the increase in budget, the biggest issue resulted in the distribution of unemployment checks to the people of Puerto Rico. The department simply lacked the necessary technology or planning to distribute such a large amount of resources to a large population. Online resources were constantly overburdened by the influx of citizens seeking aid which resulted in difficulty in processing applications. By March, the department had only completed 3,000 out of 87,000 requests for financial help, garnering much criticism for mismanagement.
The most recent source of outrage came from a video involving a US Postal Worker within the territory who discovered a fatal flaw. When applying for unemployment the applicant is asked for both their mailing and residential address. A simple procedure turned problematic when applicants would write “the same” in the mailing address or “la misma,” in Spanish. This was meant to signal to those entering data that the residential address and the mailing were the same, therefore, the check should be sent to the residential address. Unfortunately, rather than simply placing the residential address, the department’s system placed “la misma” as mailing directions, ruining batches of checks sent. The postal worker, once realizing the mistake, posted a video on social media warning all applicants and reporting multiple erroneously sent checks. This birthed the “#LaMisma” on Twitter, using the hashtag to demand reform and more transparency from the DLHR. The Secretary of the DLHR publicly denounced the incident and called for immediate rectification of the issue, but there has been no verification of such correction or status update on the checks at the writing of this article.
Whether this resulted in the resignation of Briseida Torres Reyes, Secretary of the DLHR is unclear, but what is known is that on June 9, 2020, Torres Reyes abruptly resigned as Secretary. According to El Nuevo Dia, she stated, “in the past 24 hours a personal situation has arisen that I will not be able to postpone and I must dedicate a large part of my energy to, which limits the amount that I can dedicate to DLHR that it deserves.” She also released an open letter writing, “As a response to [COVID-19], we’ve successfully benefitted 250,000 people and sent out $1.1 billion since the first of April. Despite the multiple difficulties of technology and lack of specialized personnel.” The secretary failed to mention whether these checks were confirmed to be received and cashed or simply confirmed to be sent by the department. Unfortunately, the validity of her claim is unverifiable due to the lack of documentation available to the public. What is also unclear is the impact of the clerical error on the claimed $1 billion sent out to workers or what caused the issue. What is known is that the underprepared DLHR is in a state of disarray, attempting to keep up with demand with transitioning leadership.
The inefficiency of Puerto Rico’s government stems from multifaceted issues with causes at different levels of government, some due to its territorial status. Despite the overly complicated gubernatorial processes, what is clear are the results: a dwindling economy where the leading causes of death are preventable. These issues overly impact the lower class within the islands leaving them without clear remedies and with an inefficient shambled government that struggles to meet basic requirements.