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Rep. Tina Sablan quizzes DOL chief on furloughed employees

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THE House Committee on Federal and Foreign Affairs on Monday met with CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente in the House chamber to discuss the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program.

Lawmakers had an opportunity to ask Benavente questions about the program while sharing the concerns of their constituents.

The discussion heated up during a line of questioning presented by Rep. Tina Sablan regarding eight furloughed CNMI DOL employees who have not been recalled despite additional workers being added onto the team to assist the department with the PUA program.

“Are we here to talk about the furlough of the CNMI DOL employees or are we here to talk about implementation of the PUA program?” Benavente asked Sablan.

The lawmaker said  her line of questioning was relevant to the PUA implementation, adding that the CNMI DOL received additional funds for the administration of the program.

“If you’re having staffing issues [and] if you have people who are experienced with [Disaster Unemployment Assistance] implementation who have been furloughed, and if there’s money to recall them so [that] they can assist [with the PUA program], the question is…‘why not?’”

But according to Benavente, she never said that the CNMI DOL had staffing issues, adding that the department has 99 people working on the PUA program.

CNMI DOL Administrative Hearing Officer Jacqueline Nicolas, for her part, said, “A lot of the staff that were furloughed had ongoing personnel issues, and those are the reasons — partially — why they were not recalled.”

She added, “Because of the confidentiality of those personnel issues, and since we’re having this broadcast online, we don’t want to go into the details.”

Rep. Tina Sablan said she was not asking for details on personnel issues.

“The question…is if you furloughed employees and you had additional funding to beef up your staff to implement this program, your call then is not to hire anybody that has been recalled, but it’s not for lack of funding; it’s for these performance issues then,” she said.

Secretary Benavente said the reason that CNMI DOL furloughed employees was because of budgetary and human resources issues as clarified with the Office of Personnel Management.

 Representative Tina Sablan, left, gestures as she addresses CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente, second right, during a meeting in the House chamber on Monday. Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

But she said she was not prepared to answer Sablan’s line of questioning regarding the furloughed employees.

“I see where you’re going with this line of questioning and…I’m not comfortable with the direction we are going. I’m not being hostile,” she added.

Sablan then asked her whether CNMI DOL is interested in designating a “legislative liaison” to assist the department with the implementation of the program.

“What I have in mind is more along the lines of how U.S. congressional offices deal with federal agencies and departments. There are always individuals assigned to handle congressional inquiries and just helps move the process along. It helps catch constituents who may be falling through the cracks,” Sablan said.

She said she has had a number of emails to CNMI DOL that have gone unanswered, as well as phone calls that have not been returned.

“Is this something that you would consider: designating a legislative liaison to handle inquiries from this body and improve the lines of communication with your department?” Sablan asked Benavente, adding that constituents have been reaching out to their elected representatives regarding PUA concerns.

“What makes the PUA applicants that are coming to you any different than the PUA applicants who are standing in line at the PUA office?” Benavente asked Sablan.

The committee chairman, Rep. Luis John Castro, called for a recess after Sablan and Benavente both spoke over each other.

After a brief recess, Sablan said, “I’m not at all asking that favorable treatment be provided to anybody. What I had in mind was, as a former congressional caseworker myself, that we would have designated points of contact to reach out to agencies on behalf of constituents to inquire about the status of their cases. Nothing more.”

She said it is not to put pressure on how a case should be adjudicated in one way or another, but to recognize the reality that sometimes people fall through the cracks, have language issues, or have trouble communicating with government departments.

“Whatever it might be...when [constituents] come to legislators, it’s often because they’re at their wits’ end and because they do need some help of some sort, and that’s all that I was asking. I think we’ve addressed this more than enough, and if that’s something that you could consider in the future, Madame Secretary, I think that would help tremendously to improve service, improve communications between our offices and yours, and also relieve some of the pressure on your time as well so that we’re not constantly calling you to the Legislature to answer questions.”

Secretary Benavente, in response, said, “We all want the same things: Get these PUA benefits out to people and help them as quickly as possible and as correctly as possible.”

Common issues

Regarding issues that some CNMI PUA applicants have encountered such as their payments ending up with the Guam Department of Labor  instead of the CNMI DOL, Secretary Benavente said  this was primarily because the applicants used the wrong online portal.

She said in such cases, the CNMI DOL has had to work with Guam DOL to reverse those charges, and with the Bank of Guam as well to see what system to use.

“It’s not as simple as just pressing a button and reversing it back to Guam DOL, and then pressing another button and it goes to CNMI DOL. There are many things we had to do, technical issues that had to be worked out,” she said.

Benavente said if a CNMI PUA applicant received a claim number from the HireGuam online portal, then the applicant’s Social Security number has already been placed in the HireGuam online portal and cannot be used to apply through the HireMarianas online portal.

She said once the applicant receives his or her claim number, he or she is supposed to receive an online portal determination notice of approval or notice of denial.

After receiving an approval notice, the applicant should have the payment processed within seven to 10 business days —  “in a perfect world,” Benavente said.

As for the issue of applicants receiving paper checks instead of direct deposit payments for their PUA payments, Benavente said if the approved applicants opted for direct deposit payment method and provided accurate bank information on their application, they should receive their direct deposit payment.

Otherwise, based on banking regulations known as the National Automated Clearinghouse Association Operating Rules, after the second time that the direct deposit payment is rejected due to inaccurate bank information, the payment method will then be changed to paper check. The applicant will receive a paper check from the Department of Finance instead of receiving a direct deposit payment, Benavente said.

As for concerns about CNMI DOL community outreach for the PUA program, she said for the sake of protecting the personal identifiable information of PUA claimants and minimizing the spread of Covid-19 as much as possible, her department will refrain from any further in-person community outreach outside of the CNMI DOL offices, including on Rota and Tinian.

She also noted that PUA is a taxable income so all applicants are asked whether they would like to have the tax deducted from their payment now at the outset, or later through the 1099 form.

She also told lawmakers that free paper copying services relating to PUA applications have been provided by the CNMI DOL since the implementation of the program.

Audacity

Secretary Benavente said CNMI DOL employees have been subjected to profane language and hostile behavior from aggravated applicants.

“Many times, the worst things come from our own public officials, sad to say. Instead of using their powerful voices to help us, support us, call us, and ask us what we need, some of these politicians have the audacity to use social media as a political tool,” she said.

She said she is grateful to the CNMI PUA team, adding that they have been under a lot of stress even outside of work, with their families and friends contacting them at all hours of the night asking for assistance with their PUA applications.

“They know that they can’t do that at home. They have to come to the office, help them online, stay within the legal boundaries of the federal program,” she said.

To lawmakers, she said, “Let’s all do our jobs and help each other. Use your voices to help us. Many of you have called to offer me cases of water, tents, benches, [and] I appreciate that. [But] few of you have used that social media tool to the point of letting my staff become more depressed [and] more demoralized.”

She said she has advised her staff to not pay attention to social media, adding that it is political season.

Fraudulent claims

Secretary Benavente said all CNMI PUA fraudulent claims were not filed in the Commonwealth.

“All of the fraudulent claims were located outside of the CNMI. All of them [have] U.S. addresses. All of them have ‘red flags,’ as we call them,” she said.

She added that “peculiar” email addresses or addresses outside of the CNMI have been the most common red-flagged cases. If someone is living in the United States and is applying for HireMarianas, the case is red-flagged and payment is intercepted until the applicant is verified.

“Anyone can apply for PUA, but not everyone will qualify,” she said, adding that only U.S. citizens and qualified aliens are eligible for the federally funded program.

Qualified aliens include individuals lawfully admitted under the Immigration and Nationality Act, such as, but not limited to, refugees, asylum-seekers, and those of Cuban or Haitian descent.

A02, A03, A04, A05, A08, A12, A16, C11, C19, and C33 aliens are also qualified, CNMI DOL Administrative Hearing Officer Jacqueline Nicolas said.

She said CNMI DOL utilizes the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements, or USCIS SAVE, program to determine whether or not a non-U.S. citizen is qualified for PUA benefits.

Secretary Benavente said the CNMI DOL Benefits Payment Control Unit is unique to the Commonwealth, adding that not even Guam or Palau has such a unit to detect fraudulent claims.

To report fraud or overpayment, contact the CNMI DOL Benefits Payment Control Unit at 322-9943/9944 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

While the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, or FPUC, program ended earlier this year, the PUA program is due to end in December of this year.

 

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