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UPDATE: GDOL's stance on reduced hours inconsistent with the law, delegate says

GDOL: Workers can't claim benefit for reduced hours

FILING FOR JOBLESS BENEFIT: A person arrives for her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance appointment at the Department of Labor's satellite location on Oct. 14, 2020 at the Yona Public Library. David Castro/The Guam Daily Post

Michael San Nicolas

Michael San Nicolas

The Guam Department of Labor director's message on Wednesday that workers on reduced hours cannot claim unemployment benefits is inconsistent with the law authorizing the benefits, said Delegate Michael San Nicolas Thursday.

"The recent guidance referenced by the Guam director of labor affecting PUA eligibility for workers with reduced hours is not consistent with statute," San Nicolas stated. "Congress has made no change in law to prompt this dramatic shift in interpretation, and we will work with the Biden administration to fix the confusion. The public is urged not to panic as we work to address this misinterpretation."

On Wednesday, Guam Department of Labor Director David Dell'Isola said employees on reduced work hours should not file for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance when the system opens for filing. Those who do may face overpayment, the director has cautioned.

Dell'Isola stood by a Jan. 8 written guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor on extended PUA eligibility, after San Nicolas held a news briefing asking the public to wait for clarification on the matter.

Another USDOL memo, issued Dec. 30, 2020, to state workforce agencies, does acknowledge “partial employment,” or reduced hours, as part of the program. The memo states: “Individuals must provide a self-certification that their unemployment, partial unemployment, or inability or unavailability to work is specifically attributable to one or more of the COVID-19-related reasons” specified in sections of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, and must identify that specific reason for each week PUA is claimed. “This applies with respect to weeks beginning on or after Jan. 26, 2021,” the memo states.

The delegate said the law on eligibility has not changed.

He said it's counterintuitive to make an interpretation to "cut off a whole group of people – I would assume millions of people – from being eligible for the assistance."

Thousands on Guam who were previously getting PUA because their work hours have been severely reduced, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are now cut off from the program based on USDOL guidelines, Dell'Isola said.

"It's not something we're happy with, but it's their program and it's their money. We're just the steward," Dell'Isola told The Guam Daily Post.

For Sheryll Y. Palaganas and Catalina Roldan, learning that they don't qualify for PUA anymore is both shocking and disappointing.

They're only allowed to work 20 hours or less a week, much less than the regular 40-hour workweek.

"It's unfair," Roldan said, who just recently found a new job that allows her to work for only 20 hours or $175 a week. "I will get more money to help my family and pay the bills if I don't have a job."

Her $175 weekly salary is much less than the up-to-$645 she could receive every week if she is unemployed and receives both PUA and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation up to mid-March. 

"It breaks my heart," she said. "I hope they reconsider. Even if we have a job, the pay is still too little because of the pandemic, and without PUA, we won't have enough to pay our bills."

Palaganas, who's now back on the job after months of furlough, is also only getting paid for 20 hours or less a week so she also feels it's unfair.

"They should allow us to still file for PUA," she said.

April Ignacio, a part-time employee who continues to look for a full-time job, believes homelessness will "skyrocket" as a result of the exclusion of pandemic-hit workers from PUA.

Don't panic

San Nicolas urged the public to remain calm and not panic about losing PUA eligibility.

He has since received a flurry of questions and concerns from people working less than 40 hours a week.

The delegate said if USDOL and congressional committees confirm the guidance that Dell'Isola received, "then we just have to wait for the new administration to come in and make it very plain to them that this interpretation by the outgoing administration was not only statutorily inaccurate but it’s harmful."

President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20.

Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said her calls with Biden and his administration indicate that a meaningful round of new relief to the states and territories will be the pressing focus of the incoming administration.

"We are working to be sure that Guam isn't left behind and that we can improve on the things the current package fell short," she said.

Who is still qualified?

People who are still unemployed or are still on furlough because of the pandemic are qualified to apply for the extended PUA, Dell'Isola said.

Self-employed individuals are also still qualified for PUA, provided their income is still at a severely diminished level because of the pandemic.

"Please, if you're on reduced work hours, don't file for PUA," Dell'Isola said. "Those who are unemployed and still being assisted, file your weekly claim."

Attached to the USDOL guidance that Dell'Isola received are PUA implementation and operating instructions "revised Jan. 8, 2021."

The guidance states, in part, "An individual who is working reduced hours while his or her place of employment continues to operate does not satisfy the conditions to self-certify under item (jj)," which is about a place of employment closed as a direct result of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

San Nicolas believes that even this written guidance isn't a firm statement on ineligibility. 

Dell'Isola said he cannot, in good conscience, ask people on reduced work hours to continue to file for PUA and face overpayments.

Right now, there is no distinction between those who are actively looking for a job and those who are not, to be eligible for PUA.

But as Guam lifts more social restrictions, the work-search requirement could kick in, Dell'Isola said, although that's up to the governor to decide.

Dell'Isola also said as day care centers and schools fully reopen, people can no longer use the closure of day-ca e centers as an excuse to not go back to work, or work at all.

GDOL distributed some $503 million in federal unemployment assistance to about 27,000 pandemic-displaced workers on Guam since June 2020. It will batch claims for payments on Tuesday.

Other pointers:

  • The last week of payable unemployment is the week ending March 13, a Saturday.
  • The pandemic relief package extends the maximum unemployment benefit from 39 weeks to 50 weeks. Claimants may only collect these additional 11 weeks of benefits with respect to weeks of unemployment beginning on or after Dec. 27, 2020.
  • The new law limits the availability of backdating claims that are filed after Dec. 27, 2020, to no earlier than Dec. 1, 2020.

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

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