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CNMI DOL to disburse up to $10M in PUA funds

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CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky I. Benavente on Tuesday said DOL is preparing to disburse between $5 million and $10 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program funds.

“We are preparing payments for approved claimants,” she said in a press briefing on KKMP radio. “We are in week seven of the PUA program…. And we are preparing to disburse between $5 million and $10 million to about 1,000 to 1,500 claimants [whose applications have been] approved.”

She said CNMI DOL received 7,000 initial applications.

“Although the numbers are tapering down, we still have a consistent number of people applying for unemployment benefits, and we expect this to continue over the next few weeks to few months, depending on the turnaround of our economy.”

She said her department is working on 300 and 500 applications each day.

“It takes time to vet the applications because we are finding numerous errors. So on an average, about 40 out of that 500 would be approved and then processed for payment,” she added.

“We’re only in week seven [of the PUA process] and the second week of payment disbursements, so there’s no consistency at this time. We’re looking at the number of applications we’ve received…. Then, to approve them, it means vetting a lot of information, so I think at the end of the week, I’ll have more solid data since we’re only in our second week of payment disbursements.”

PUA funds were disbursed to the tune of about $35 million on Friday, Benavente said.

“There are thousands of people who are receiving PUA benefits within the last two days and within the next three days. There’ll [be] some more as soon as they are approved… reviewed, [and undergo the] adjudication process,” she added.

 “It’s a time-consuming process, and I do want to say I appreciate the help that I am getting as far as extra hands. Thanks to Governor Torres and Lt. Governor Palacios, we got more hands working on the paper applications, which means quicker processing for PUA.”

Secretary Benavente said her department “wants to process as many PUA applicants as possible, but if these applications have been found to be inaccurate, incorrect, or employer documents are missing, then that number will probably go down….”

Fraudulent claims

Benavente said the Benefit Payment Control or BPC Unit her of her department will investigate fraudulent claims.

“It’s an additional task that’s required for the PUA program. I’d like to remind everyone that if they hear of an applicant or an application that is fraudulent or inaccurate and they would like for us to investigate, the fraud hotline is 989-9095. We have seen possible fraudulent claims. We have seen them, and that’s why we’re investigating through our BPC unit,” she said.

“I don’t want to hinder the process. I prefer to keep that for later news as soon as we confirm the numbers and the situation surrounding these fraudulent or possible fraudulent claims,” she added.

Secretary Benavente said that anything misrepresented on an application will be considered fraudulent. The repercussions will be decided by the government, and will either be a fine, sanction, or jail time depending on the seriousness of the fraudulent claim.

“The CNMI is handling all of its cases as far as appeals, hearings, and any kind of fraudulent case. We will hear first here, and if we are required to, we will bring in the U.S. Department of Labor for assistance, but [the CNMI] can actually decide on these particular fraudulent claims, and then refer [them] to the U.S. Department of Labor for further action.”

Virtual outreach

CNMI DOL is also planning another outreach, Secretary Benavente said. “But we’re going to do it via the virtual online forum because with Covid-19 still a threat to our public, we don’t want to have too much person-to-person contact and too much enclosed person-to-person contact.”

She added, “The next one we are scheduling will possibly be with the organizations, such as the [Society for Human Resource Management or the Hotel Association of the Northern Mariana Islands], so that we can assist more people and more of their staff or former staff who are filling out these applications.”

Jobless

Secretary Benavente said the number of unemployed persons in the CNMI is rising.

“Since June through July, I’ve seen several more notices from employers who had informed the Department of Labor that they were closing operations until further notice, so I’m sure that the [jobless] number has increased. Some people actually waited until August to submit an application for PUA,” she said.

“With federal funding, we’re set at a budget. We can’t go over or overspend, but we’re looking at requesting more funding for the PUA program. Although we had requested $238 million in the very beginning, we were initially granted $70 million as startup funds, so we’re already in the process of requesting for [more funds].”

Direct deposit or mailed check

Secretary Benavente clarified that  CNMI DOL does not mail any checks or make any deposits, but only processes and approves PUA applications.

“We process the PUA application, and the approved applications get transferred up to the Department of Finance. Please do not go to the Department of Finance for paper checks. Those will be mailed out as they are processed by the Department of Finance,” she said.

 “Again, in light of Covid-19...to make sure we stay on top of public health safety, we are trying to limit person-to-person contact…. If you have a bank account that is on the application, the deposits will go into your bank account. If you stated on your application [that] you wanted a paper check, those paper checks will be mailed out two weeks after the approval of the PUA application from the Department of Labor, then it [gets] transferred up to the Department of Finance.”

Contacting CNMI DOL

During a previous interview, Secretary Benavente said CNMI DOL was working on upgrading its phone lines to make it simpler for clients to call in to allow for a callback system.

“We’ve actually tried to upgrade our systems, both [our] online and telephone systems. We’re working with our telecommunications partners [on] how we can make it simpler for our clients to call in. As you know up on Capital Hill, it’s not an area that has easy access to the internet or telecommunications for that matter, so we’re working on upgrading the lines and putting in the wires where they need to be, the routers where they need to be,” she said.

CNMI DOL has amended its hours of operations to focus more on processing PUA applications. Office hours are now from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For questions or inquiries regarding the status of a PUA application, email CNMI DOL at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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