SAIPAN — The House Committee on Federal and Foreign Affairs on Monday met with Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Department of Labor Secretary Vicky Benavente in the House chamber to discuss the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance 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 to 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 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."
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.