Lacking an established unemployment assistance program, Northern Mariana Islands struggle to distribute aid
After a series of delays, the first round of the Northern Mariana Islands’ Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) landed in around 300 bank accounts on Friday, July 17, with 1,000 more checks distributed the following day and 5,000 set to go out over the next week. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) Finance Secretary David Atalig reported that the third batch of 5,000 payments would total $15 million, with an additional $70 million available funds under the PUA and related Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) programs.
The PUA and FPUC programs are funded by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020, which President Donald Trump (R) signed into law on March 27, 2020. The PUA program offers up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to citizens whose employment has been directly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the FPUC allocates supplemental payments to recipients of PUA benefits.
As the CNMI’s main source of revenue is the tourism industry, the pandemic shutdown has crippled its economy and left thousands of citizens unemployed, many of whom will be eligible for PUA and FPUC benefits. Until these programs were established by the CARES Act, the CNMI had never had an unemployment assistance program, and the Department of Labor has struggled to get the new programs up and running smoothly. As a result, CNMI residents have waited months since the US Department of Labor’s approval of the CNMI Department of Labor’s PUA and FPUC implementation plan in May. On top of largely unexplained delays, the CNMI Department of Labor has struggled with a number of malfunctions on their online application portal. In addition, CNMI Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente claimed in an interview that almost all the applications they had received were either incomplete or incorrectly filled out, resulting in extra delays.
On July 2, 2020, Senator Paul A. Manglona (I) of Rota, wrote an open letter to CNMI Governor Ralph DLG Torres (R) requesting a timeframe for when the promised financial relief would be delivered. “While it is understandable that the shortcomings in the nation’s unemployment-insurance system undoubtedly affected our local distribution timeframe, the PUA and FPUC funds of about $70.5 million have been available as early as June 10, 2020,” Manglona wrote. Further, he compared the CNMI’s implementation timeline to that of neighboring Guam, where over 26,600 unemployment claims were filed and the second round of PUA and FPUC funds already being issued. “This is such a large number to process compared to the CNMI’s estimated 4,000 residents who had lost their jobs. Yet, not one person has been issued a check in the CNMI,” he said.
In a July 17, 2020 press release, Governor Torres said, “We express our sincerest appreciation to everyone in our community for their patience during these unprecedented times. We fully recognize the challenges and struggles, and we hope that as people start receiving their much-deserved payouts, some semblance of normalcy will happen.”