Northern Marianas Congressman Gregorio 'Kilili' Camacho Sablan announced this morning that workers in the Marianas will be covered by the federal jobless benefits that are part of the federal government's $2 trillion COVID-19 economic relief or CARES Act.
"Workers in the Marianas, who lose their private sector or government job because of the coronavirus, will receive weekly unemployment checks, even though the Marianas does not have an unemployment compensation system that employers pay into," Sablan said.
“According to staff of the House Ways and Means Committee, who worked with us on making sure laid-off workers in the Marianas would get an unemployment check, this should be about $960 per week in total,” Sablan said.
The weekly benefit in the Marianas will be equal to the national average unemployment compensation benefit of about $360, plus an additional federal supplement of $600, his press release states.
In addition to four months of unemployment assistance the COVID-19 relief bill provides, the normal 26 weeks provided in states' jobless programs would also apply to the Marianas, Sablan's press release adds.
"For the Marianas, Sablan was able to get the same total number of weeks—39 weeks or about nine months," Sablan's press release states.
“This direct help for workers and their families to make up for lost income was another of my top priorities,” the congressman said. The unemployment payments were difficult to include in the new law, because the Commonwealth has never set up an unemployment system to protect workers who lose a job through no fault of their own. And Congress usually uses state unemployment systems to get checks to laid-off workers. So, a special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program had to be set up to cover workers in the Marianas and other areas not covered by an existing unemployment system," Sablan said.
The Commonwealth government will administer these new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance payments with 100% federal funding, he said.
Taxpayer recovery rebates: $1,200, $2,400
Marianas taxpayers are eligible for the same “recovery rebate” being paid everywhere else in the United States and the federal government will cover the cost, another of the congressman’s negotiating points last week.
Individual taxpayers will receive up to $1,200 and joint filers up to $2,400, with an additional $500 per child. The rebate phases out at annual incomes over $75,000.
Social Security recipients, who did not file an income tax return, will receive the credit automatically based on information in their 2019 Social Security Benefit Statement.
A person, who is not a U.S. citizen or national, is generally eligible for the rebate, if they resided in the Marianas for at least 31 days in 2020.
Treasury Secretary Mnuchin has said the rebates will be delivered within three weeks to U.S. taxpayers. In the Marianas, the Commonwealth government is responsible for how quickly rebates are processed and how quickly the money gets into the local economy.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a third coronavirus relief bill Friday afternoon and the President signed it into law.
Sablan said he had four primary goals—direct aid to the Commonwealth for education, healthcare, and other government expenditures; cash for laid-off workers; federal funds to the CNMI treasury for tax-based payments to individuals; and help for tourism-related businesses—were all met. In addition, the Marianas shares an additional $200 million in food aid with American Samoa and Puerto Rico and is eligible for a range of federal programs from childcare to economic development that are all receiving additional funds to help America weather the coronavirus crisis.
“Although the CARES Act will be a tremendous help to our islands and our nation in the weeks ahead,” Sablan said, “we face an uncertain future. More work remains to do in Congress to make sure that we contain the spread of the coronavirus and minimize the economic damage.”
Direct aid to the CNMI government
Sablan reports the Commonwealth government will receive an estimated $37.8 million from the CARES Act. A $3 billion set-aside in the law for non-state governments is divided among American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, the Marianas, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands based on population.
Sablan made this direct payment to local government a top priority in his personal advocacy for the Marianas and also rallied other insular area Delegates around this effort. [See the insular Delegates position statement to House and Senate leadership here.]
The CARES Act, as originally introduced by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, had no direct aid for insular government or for state governments. That gap was fixed in the final negotiations leading to passage of the law. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and other insular governments receive about $700 per capita in direct aid. The average for state governments is about $460 per capita.
Nevertheless, the CARES Act provides less assistance to insular governments than legislation introduced by House Democrats last week as a counterproposal. “Of course, it was important to get some money for local government in the CARES Act,” Sablan said. “I do not think it will be enough, however. So, as we move to drafting a fourth coronavirus relief package, getting more direct aid to the Commonwealth government will continue to be one of my main concerns.”
The Commonwealth government will also be eligible to receive technical assistance funds through the Department of the Interior. “The insular areas have needs uniquely different than the rest of the nation and have limited financial resources,” Sablan said. “So, we included $55 million for Interior’s Assistance to Territories account in the CARES Act.”
This week, Interior announced the award of $858,924 from this account to the Pacific Island Health Officers Association. The money will be used to purchase coronavirus test kits for American Samoa, Guam, the Marianas, and the Freely Associated States.
Last week, Interior awarded $366,900 to the Marianas from this assistance fund to procure personal protective equipment and hygienic supplies for government workers and others at risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
“The need is clear,” Sablan said, “and now there is additional funding.”
Money for teachers, schools increased
The final version of the CARES Act includes up to $153 million for schools from kindergarten through high school and for colleges in the insular areas. As chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, Sablan said he prioritized school funding during negotiations. Funding for schools nationwide was increase and insular school got was lifted from $100 million in an earlier stage of the bill.
“With the Commonwealth government unable to keep up with what it owes the Public School System, this new money will pay teacher and staff salaries in the weeks and months ahead and eventually help our schools reopen,” Sablan said. PSS and Northern Marianas College may also be able to use the money to invest in their distance-learning infrastructure, so young people in the Marianas can continue their education, even in the middle of the coronavirus crisis.
Funding allocations for each insular area will be determined by the Secretary of Education based on her determination of need.
Grants, loans for business: $375B
The CARES Act has a total of $375 billion in grants and loans for businesses to get through the economic crisis. And there is a loan forgiveness program for businesses that keep employees on payroll through the downturn.
“Included is the aid for airlines I asked for,” Sablan reports. There is $29 billion in grants, plus $3 billion for contractors, and another $29 billion for loans and loan guarantees to airlines, repair stations and ticket agents in the new law.
“The aviation industry is critical to our tourism economy and our everyday life,” Sablan added, “So, the CARES Act also provides assurances that air carriers, who get federal help, maintain service to remote communities like ours.” He said $10 billion in grant aid is also provided for airports if they agree to retain 90 percent of their workforce.
The Small Business Administration’s Emergency Economic Injury Grants program gets an infusion of cash to address demand caused by the coronavirus. A Small Business Debt Relief Program will help cover monthly loan payments for cash-strapped businesses. And the CARES Act will provide free counseling through Small Business Development Centers to help businesses find the right federal program to meet their needs.