'Scammers are lurking around'

HELPING OTHERS: Ayen Hutchison, who founded an online forum for displaced Guam workers needing federal unemployment assistance, is pictured with her dog Billy Boy before going on a job interview recently. Photo courtesy of Ayen Hutchison

Ayen Hutchison was on a 14-day home quarantine on March 20 when she got a call from her employer that she was being laid off.

It was a shock, she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic was already starting to wreak havoc on the economy, so her employer had to let go of employees.

After spending hours in front of the computer looking for jobs, she realized she could help others who were having difficulty filing their unemployment claims.

She created the Facebook group, "Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)-Guam." Online, she goes by the name "Pm Manila."

'Some people have no heart'

As the group's creator and administrator, she screens and blocks people she thinks are "scammers and spammers."

There are those who are trying to take advantage of others' desperation to go back to work, she said.

A lot of spammers, she said, were trying to get into the group, then post invitations to members to join or invest in some kinds of schemes.

"Scammers are lurking around, preying on some unsuspecting members to give out personal info," Hutchison said.

She said she, too, almost fell victim on a fake job post.

"Some people have no heart. They will go (to) great lengths to scam people," she said.

She asked others to help her administer the page, which now has nearly 3,000 members.

32,000-plus displaced workers

Hutchison is one of Guam's 32,539 workers who were laid off, furloughed or took work-hour reductions, as of Sunday, as a direct result of the pandemic.

The numbers keep climbing by the day.

As of Sunday, nearly 85% of them, or 27,614, have so far filed their initial unemployment claims under the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, according to the Guam Department of Labor special projects coordinator Hannah Cho.

Patience and attention to detail are among Hutchison's strengths, honed from years of doing purchasing and administrative work in the corporate world, so she used these skills to help others.

The PUA-Guam Facebook page is not associated with the Guam Department of Labor.

Many of Guam's jobless, however, have found the forum helpful in understanding the application process and seeking other types of help.

When Guam Labor announced the release of $35 million in initial unemployment benefit payments, many in the group posted words of gratitude while also sharing which banks were beginning to make those funds available. Another $36.4 million will be released this week.

"I wasn't expecting it to feel this good, but I do, especially that lots of my group members got theirs, too. We're in this together every day for more than a month already," Hutchison said.

The U.S. Department of Labor made available an initial $276 million for Guam's PUA and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation programs. Guam Labor asked for a $924 million budget.

Hutchison said the struggles of those who suddenly lost their jobs, or those who are slowly seeing their income disappear, is real.

"A lot of people inside and outside of this group would say, 'How come these unemployed people get this and get that while sitting at home, and we’re working our a** off and not getting any?' That’s hard to swallow. We did not choose to be unemployed. Comments like that hurt, you know," she said.

Others have been without a paycheck for more than three months and are facing eviction unless they find a job or get financial assistance until they're back on their feet.

While the PUA benefits will help pay the bills, Hutchison said, she still prefers to work and she's been ready to be back on the job. She was on a job interview on Friday, and also got other job offers, she said.

"I don't really want to rely on the government to pay for my bills much longer," she said.

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

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