CNMI Department of Labor Provides PUA Update

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (“PUA”) and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (“FPUC”) programs are intended to support workers whose employment was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department has received a total of 39,220 unique claims, inclusive of non-jurisdictional and fraudulent claims during the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act (CAA) and the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) pandemic assistance periods. Of these unique claims, 10,378 were deemed eligible and 26,243 were deemed ineligible for benefits based on the guidance and applicable laws provided to the Department by the US Department of Labor. As of September 15, 2021, there are a total of 2,599 pending claims.

It is the Department’s mission to pay all eligible claimants their due benefits. However, delays may be attributed to the fact-intensive adjudication process. When claims are received, they are sorted, inputted into the system and alphabetically assigned to adjudicators for fact-finding and adjudication. During this phase, the adjudicator must determine, among other things:

1. Whether the claimant is receiving unemployment benefits from any other state or federal program;

2. Whether the claimant’s employment was affected as a direct result of a qualifying COVID-19 reason;

3. Whether the claimant provided identification and sufficient employment documents within the applicable timelines;

4. Whether the claimant is “able and available” to work during the claimed weeks;

5. Whether the claimant is a U.S. Citizen, Non-citizen national, or Qualified Alien;

6. Whether the claimant is monetarily eligible based on partial income and for how much; and

7. Whether deductions for overpayments, child support, and/or taxes is appropriate.

As a reminder, claimants are responsible for providing true and accurate information, reading the PUA benefit rights information handbook, and complying with requests for information. To maintain program integrity and prevent fraud or overpayments from occurring, PUA program adjudicators must address all deficiencies or issues in the claim. When documents are not submitted, incomplete, or otherwise flawed, further investigation is necessary to clear an issue. Further, when the Department becomes aware of certain circumstances through employer reporting, fraud tips, or contradictory supporting documents, additional inquiry or investigation may become necessary. Although it may cause delay, the Departments seeks to clear issues and further investigate instead of issuing outright denials when such issues arise. When issues cannot be cleared, a denial is warranted.

As recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor, the CNMI Department of Labor has implemented the programs in accordance with the CNMI implementation plan and CNMI-DOL Agreements. Further, the Department has been cooperative with all necessary monitoring and reporting and proactive in providing timely payments, while balancing the difficult task of identifying and preventing fraud. The Department understands these benefits are a critical lifeline for the community and is working within the applicable law to provide due benefits to eligible claimants. 

Initially, for the first phase of the PUA program, PUA claimants were required to submit a simple “Self-Certification” that they met at least one of the Covid-19 approved, qualifying reasons identified under section 2102(a)(3)(A)(ii)(I) of the CARES Act.  Secretary Vicky Benavente stated that, “As time progressed, we found that many claimants had either misinterpreted the program requirements and eligibility, or did not provide accurate information that would otherwise cause the claimant to be deemed ineligible for PUA benefits.”  She added, “While it is the Department’s responsibility to assist PUA claimants with processing claims, it is also our duty to verify and authenticate all information and documents provided by the claimants.” 

For more information, contact the CNMI Department of Labor – PUA Program at tel. 322-8870/8871/8872/8873/8874 or email info@puamarianas.com

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