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JOBLESS AFTER HURRICANES, 10,000+ PUERTO RICANS NOW ELIGIBLE FOR UNPRECEDENTED 52 WEEKS OF ‘DISASTER UNEMPLOYMENT ASSISTANCE’

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Advocates Express Serious Concerns With Puerto Rico’s Cumbersome Application Process


Washington, D.C.—Yesterday, Puerto Rico announced an unprecedented 52 weeks of federally-funded Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) for workers and self-employed individuals who lost their jobs due to Hurricanes Maria and Irma. This extension was authorized by a federal law and doubled the 26 weeks of benefits previously available for workers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands who were left jobless after the devastation caused by the hurricanes. The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that over 10,000 Puerto Ricans could qualify for lump-sum payments potentially totaling nearly $30 million. The individual payments will typically range from around $2,000 to $3,000 for those who receive the maximum weeks of additional assistance dating back to September 2017.

While praising the availability of the new benefits, legal advocates in Puerto Rico as well as the communities in Florida, New York, Pennsylvania and other states where Puerto Ricans have relocated raised serious questions about the process established by the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources to identify and process applicants for the program. According to Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, the Executive Director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Inc., whose organization has played a leading role in helping families obtain disaster relief after Hurricane Maria, “The PR Labor Department has to ensure that notice of this assistance is amply given so all workers who are eligible can have access, and that a much fairer process is established to apply for the benefits. A just recovery includes helping workers left jobless by the disasters and notifying them that they are eligible for this assistance.”

Serious concerns raised by the community regarding the application process include the following:

Puerto Rico’s announcement appears to require workers to provide documentation in person, which potentially leaves out thousands of applicants who are unemployed due to the hurricanes but do not live in Puerto Rico.
Internet options, which are normally provided for applicants, are not offered, and the announcement is unclear as to whether applicants can file by phone.
Applicants are required to fill out excessive paperwork even if they previously received unemployment insurance or DUA in response to the storms.
Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, Associate Counsel with LatinoJustice PRLDEF, whose organization has recruited and trained pro bono attorneys around the country to assist in the relief effort, is urging the legal services community to once again play a critical role: “Given the number of evacuees and Puerto Ricans who migrated to the U.S. after the hurricane, it’s critical that they be informed of this opportunity to receive this additional assistance as they try to rebuild their lives.”

In a letter dated November 5th, the U.S. Department of Labor granted Puerto Rico broad authority to implement the extended DUA program. The federal guidance clarifies that all workers who reached the end of their regular unemployment insurance, those who collected the basic 26 weeks of DUA, and those qualified individuals who never applied for DUA for legitimate reasons are eligible for the extended relief. In addition, Puerto Rico was authorized to waive the requirement that workers certify that they were able and available for work.

Of special note, the federal letter directs the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources to identify everyone who would qualify and send letters informing them of the assistance and how to apply for and receive the new DUA benefits before the March 25, 2019 filing deadline.

To help spread the word about the rights of workers to collect the new DUA benefits, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Inc., LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and NELP are partnering on an aggressive DUA outreach and education campaign. Once more details become available on how to apply for the new program, the groups will broadly disseminate fact sheets in Spanish and English and will activate their networks in Puerto Rico and across the United States to support the initiative.

“Puerto Rico has been provided maximum flexibility to take advantage of this special opportunity to help workers and business owners who lost their livelihoods to the storms,” said Maurice Emsellem, Program Director at NELP. “NELP is proud to be partnering with these exceptional organizations to help ensure that all Puerto Rican families who are eligible for these important benefits receive the support they need and deserve,” said Mr. Emsellem.

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Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Inc. is a non-profit organization that provides free and accessible legal education and support to low and moderate income individuals and communities. For more information about Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Inc., visit www.ayudalegalpr.org and www.recuperacionjustapr.com

LatinoJustice PRLDEF works to create a more just society by using and challenging the rule of law to secure transformative, equitable and accessible justice, by empowering our community and by fostering leadership through advocacy and education.. For more information about LatinoJustice, visit www.latinojustice.org.

The National Employment Law Project is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that conducts research and advocates on issues affecting low-wage and unemployed workers. For more about NELP, visit www.nelp.org. Follow NELP on Twitter at @NelpNews.

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