SAIPAN — CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente said as of Friday, over $136 million in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance funds has been distributed on the three main islands.

In a press briefing, she said Saipan, Tinian and Rota have received over 15,000 claims – 14,230 claims for Saipan, 734 for Tinian and 649 for Rota.

Over $108 million in PUA funds and over $16 million in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation has been distributed on Saipan, she added.

For Rota claimants, over $5.7 million in PUA funds and $3.3 million in FPUC funds have been distributed, while Tinian claimants have received $3.5 million in FPUC and $2.4 million in PUA.

So far, CNMI DOL has paid out over 7,000 applicants and still has quite a few pending, Benavente said.

Adjudication is in the thousands, she said, "which is why we have shut down the PUA headquarters for in-person appointments and are focusing on adjudications for these thousands of applications still on the books."

She added, "We do plan to continue requesting additional (federal) funds for PUA. As a matter of fact, last week, we put in another request for another installment payment, and the U.S. Department of Labor has found it favorably, and they will be issuing some funds to the CNMI this week hopefully."

That's usually the trend, she said. "We ask and they provide it within a few days."

Fraudulent claims

But CNMI DOL has also intercepted about 60 cases of fraudulent claims amounting to over $1 million that were not paid out, Benavente said.

At the same time, she added, CNMI DOL's Benefits Payment Control unit collected over $1.3 million for 349 overpayment cases.

These cases included applicants who misfiled a lump sum or misfiled a Payroll Protection Program amount or whose unemployment was not a direct result of COVID-19, among other reasons, Benavente said.

"We've been pretty busy tracking applications ... and intercepting fraudulent applications," she added.

The most common factor in these fraudulent claims is the fact that mailing addresses for some applicants are not in the CNMI but in the U.S. mainland, Benavente said.

"We picked up on that. So we look into the application and find out there are no documents submitted – there's no ID, there are no check stubs – and so right away, that's red-flagged as a fraudulent claim."

She said some of these applicants "seem to come back in the next week and use a different name, different username, and then try to get payment using different documents. But we notice that the mailing address is still the same."