By Johnnie Rosario
Unemployment benefits are what bring millions of out-of-work Americans as close to normal as life can get since Coronavirus turned the world upside down. But for the nearly-40,000 Guam workers affected by the public health emergency, living even a simple life where families can afford food is something closer to fantasy. It's been this way for more than two months now, even though Congress authorized unemployment payments on Guam since March 27.
Most of the delay was caused by the need for Guam to create a plan acceptable to the U.S. Department of Labor, then create a system to roll out the benefits. That system now is up and running, but many qualified residents are running into a problem as they apply: their employer never registered.
Sen. Regine Biscoe Lee, who has legislative oversight of the Guam Department of Labor, says workers should not be discouraged from applying. All you need to do is contact DOL, work through the problem, and you'll get your benefits.
But Congressman Michael San Nicolas says enough is enough. Even a day of delay caused by the failure of employers to register is a day too many for thousands of workers on the brink of starvation.
Mr. San Nicolas has been warning senators and the governor since the first week of April to pass local legislation requiring employers to register with DOL as a condition of maintaining their business licenses.
Sen. Therese Terlaje did include a provision in her Bill No. 333 that authorized the Department of Revenue and Taxation to take away business licenses for companies that fail to register. DRT, however, hasn't exercised its power under the new law, which was vetoed by the governor then overridden by senators.
Mr. San Nicolas predicted inaction by the Leon Guerrero administration and has constantly reminded senators of the importance of passing a requirement under statute. Senators did nothing.
Now that the system is up, albeit with several kinks, it is estimated that 80 percent of eligible workers may have to wait beyond system problems because their employers did not register.
In a letter to Ms. Lee, the congressman wrote:
"The numbers are clear and the ramifications stark, the more difficult it is for affected workers to get unemployment relief the worse their quality of life suffers, and the longer we delay Guam's economic recovery.
"70% of Guam businesses got PPP SBA loans due to business distress from the pandemic, yet only 20% of all businesses have registered their unemployment rolls; while there may be some variance between the two it should not be as wide, indicating that many workers could be left out of much needed unemployment relief during these times.
"With one of the only fully federally funded unemployment programs in the country, every dollar we fail to rightfully get to eligible workers is a dollar lost in their recovery and a dollar lost in the islands recovery, and with tourism revenues strained in the foreseeable future our entire community needs us to make the most of all of these opportunities we were able to secure in the Congress."
Mr. San Nicolas posted on his Facebook page a collage of messages he has been receiving and responding to regarding the delay anticipated to pay workers whose employers failed to register. He also sent the collage to Ms. Lee in his letter, and appended two letters he wrote to all senators; one on April 29, and the other on May 12. Those letters repeat the need for local law requiring the registration of employers so that no further delay happens, when unemployment payments are ready.
Responding to Mr. San Nicolas on his Facebook post, Ms. Lee wrote:
"Congressman [San Nicolas], with all due respect and to be absolutely clear: any assertion that an employer's enrollment on hireguam.com is 'required' for a successful unemployment application is wrong, plain and simple... An employer's failure to provide a verification letter or other supporting documents to a former employee WILL NOT disqualify the displaced worker from receiving this relief either."
But the Congressman never said the employer's registration is required for the worker to get the benefits. Since early April he's been telling senators that the failure to register will cause delays in workers getting their benefits. Delays, he says, most of these workers can't afford.
"Senator [Lee] no, it will not disqualify them," Mr. San Nicolas opened in his response to her. "It will just require them to provide supporting documents that they may not have at worst, or require them to go through a vetting process that will take longer if their employer was actually registered. People have waited too long as it is. That should not have to be made any clearer. Help them."
Ms. Lee is adamant she does not want people to be discouraged from applying for unemployment benefits, because even if their employer didn't register, there still is a manual system for them to receive their benefits.
Mr. San Nicolas is telling the legislature - as he has since early April - that senators can have workers avoid this headache if they just mandate registration.
"Businesses that do not register will result in more paperwork and more delays for people who have waited too long as it is," Mr. San Nicolas said. "Additionally we have these direct please from our people that your actions can address. Again, it's about making things easier for those struggling, not finding a reason to ignore it."