'Running out of options': At 35,589, Guam's unemployment keeps climbing

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HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — Cole Aguon, 22, held on to his job that allowed him to work 18 to 21 hours a week instead of the regular 40 hours, so that he could provide for his young family. But last week, the company laid him off.

"I'm the breadwinner of the family, but I lost my job," he said. "We're running out of options. We need help for now, while I'm looking for another job."

Aguon was one of more than 116 displaced workers who went to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance satellite office at the Yona Public Library on Wednesday to apply for federal unemployment aid for the first time.

Because phone lines for PUA were down Wednesday, displaced workers had to physically visit one of the satellite PUA centers in the Agat, Yona and Dededo libraries for help with their claims.

"We're hoping by coming here, we'll get help," Aguon told The Guam Daily Post outside the PUA satellite center in Yona while waiting for his turn to be serviced.

With him was his common-law wife, Savanna Oso. "We're very much in love," he said. "I want to be able to work so I provide for her and our child."

Unemployment still rising

As weeks go by, Guam's unemployment rate continues to climb because of the pandemic, albeit at a slower pace.

As of Wednesday, 35,589 Guam workers have been laid off, furloughed or had work hours cut as a direct result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to data from Hannah Cho, special projects coordinator at the Guam Department of Labor.

These are based on the reporting of 2,032 employers on the website.

Initial unemployment claims reached 40,916, higher than the number of displaced workers, partly because of fraudulent claims — mostly from outside Guam — and the exclusion of self-employed individuals who also applied but were not part of the employer-generated data.

 Cole Aguon, right, and common-law wife Savanna Oso wait their turn to enter the Yona Public Library on Wednesday where Aguon applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. He was laid off last week. Photo by Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

This week, Guam Labor released $60 million in additional payments to displaced workers.

Franly Cornelio, a mother of three boys, said since filing her PUA application in July, she hadn't received any assistance, so she went to the PUA satellite center in Yona to find the reason.

"They kept changing my pay date, from July 28 to Aug. 4 and then around Aug. 5, it says 'in progress.' I don't know why. My co-worker said I applied earlier than her, and how come she already got hers but not me? I came here to see what I need to do so I can start getting help."

Since March 20, her restaurant work hours were cut from five days a week to two, and her daughter's food stamp assistance stopped this month.

"It's so hard," she said.

Flagged claims

Grace Guerrero went to the PUA satellite center at the Agat Public Library after her and five other family members' unemployment claims were flagged for using the same post office box.

In some instances, as many as nine PUA claimants use the same post office box. On Guam, sharing the same P.O. box is common, but it gets PUA claims automatically flagged as part of anti-fraud measures in place.

After she was furloughed in March, Guerrero said she was back to work in May, but on reduced hours.

"Getting some unemployment benefits is a big help. I was able to pay all my bills," she said.

Francis Taitano, a licensed independent tour guide, went from having about 50 group tours a month in 2019 to only one in January and then to zero starting in February.

"My income from being an independent tour guide has been totally lost," he said. "I'm glad to hear personally from Labor that I am eligible to receive unemployment assistance."

He was asked to come back Thursday morning to bring the documents needed to complete his PUA application.

'No money' to share aid cost

Days after President Donald Trump issued an executive order for a $400 added weekly unemployment aid, replacing the $600 boost that expired at the end of July, the governor's fiscal team told members of the Guam Legislature on Wednesday that the government of Guam does not have the money to cover the 25% of the amount that would be required by Trump's plan, which is $100 per worker.

This could cost GovGuam $30 million to $50 million, officials said.

Department of Administration Director Edward Birn told senators that the CARES Act funds have already been budgeted, so they can't be used for the unemployment aid cost-sharing.

"The short answer is 'no,' there is no money," Birn said, responding to Sen. Therese Terlaje's question during day three of the Guam Legislature's fiscal 2021 budget session.

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