With $553.6M on its way to Guam, officials must keep in mind 'those hardest hit' by the pandemic

SOCIAL DISTANCING: A resident, center, goes through produce from a local farmer while another maintains her distance as she waits to be served at a local produce stand along Ysengsong Road in Dededo on April 14, 2020. Post file photo

There were a series of meetings and press conferences Tuesday, some already planned but no doubt made more urgent with the news that in the next few days, Guam will be receiving $553.6 million from the American Rescue Plan.

The amount initially was anticipated to be more than $600 million – estimates ran from $630 million to $660 million.

Guam senators had come up with a list of priorities, at the invitation of the governor, on how the money is to be spent. Representatives of the two branches met behind closed doors at Adelup on Tuesday afternoon.

The governor, who hadn’t made public a list of her priorities, said after the meeting that she and senators agree on most of the funding priorities.

The Recovery Income Support and Empowerment, Act of 2020, also known as the RISE Act, should be among the commonalities. The law, passed last year, intends to help those who were hardest hit by the pandemic – private sector workers who lost their jobs or lost working hours.

And guidance from the U.S. Department of Treasury sent Tuesday regarding use of the America Rescue Plan moneys is clear: It can be used to support “households, small businesses, impacted industries, essential workers and the communities hardest hit by the crisis.”

The governor, after the meeting, said while she supports the RISE Act, she would like to expand it so it benefits all residents within a certain income bracket.

The hesitation on the part of the governor and others has been, and seems to continue to be, the perceived unfairness in paying only private sector employees and not government employees the additional help.

Here’s the thing – actually, two things – we want to point out about the RISE Act:

1.) The pandemic didn’t treat everyone fairly: 
Government employees never lost a paycheck, not a sliver of it, because of the pandemic. In fact, hundreds of GovGuam employees who were working in the field received, for at least a limited amount of time, hazardous pay and/or differential pay. The latter went up to as much as 25% of their salary.

By comparison, many private sector employees lost their jobs. And just to make the point, 25% of zero is zero.

Many of those who managed to hang onto their jobs were only working and earning a fraction of the amount they used to. This is because businesses were shut down because of public health concerns and many are now still operating at reduced levels because of the pandemic.

2.) The RISE Act doesn’t pay every single private sector worker. So the argument that only private sector employees get it and not GovGuam employees, too, doesn’t fly.

Eligibility is limited to individuals making less than $40,000 in adjusted income per year, or less than $80,000 in the case of joint filers, and for those who filed returns in the tax year 2020.

Elected officials need to focus on the intent of the law – to help those who are in most need.

The RISE Act offers eligible individuals a one-time payment of up to $800 or up to $1,600 for joint income tax filers.

With the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program coming to an end in a few months, and thousands of Guamanians still out of a job, it’s important that we use the money we did get to help as many as possible – as it relates to the pandemic.

Not only were many of our island’s private sector employees hard hit, many, to the point of several senators, provided essential services throughout the pandemic – when there were no vaccines, when COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing, and the number of hospitalizations was at an all-time high. These folks were working at gas stations, selling their farm-harvested foods, ringing your groceries up at the cash register, or helping you with some other need. And many did it with just a face mask and 6 feet of distance (we hope) between them and the person they were helping.

The governor has said she’s willing to do it. And it seems she and the senators have included it on their list of priorities. Treasury also stated that local governments that receive these funds “have broad flexibility to decide how best to use this funding to meet the needs of their communities.” All that’s left now is to make it happen – and help those of our island in need.

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