Sheryll Y. Palaganas patiently waits for her unemployment benefits while others who filed their claims during the same time she did have received the federal help they needed. 

But that patience is running out, with her family trying to survive the crisis like the rest of 33,914 Guam workers so far directly displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic since March.

"We're still struggling, but in God's will and miracle, hopefully, He will answer our prayer," she said on Thursday. "Some of us are feeling helpless and tearing up because of financial crisis."

Palaganas opted to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance via paper check, instead of direct deposit in a bank account. 

She and others said they were supposed to be in the first and second batch of PUA payments.

The Guam Department of Labor is now processing the fourth batch of payments and taxes, worth nearly $21 million that's supposed to hit bank accounts by early next week.

"I feel that the GDOL should be fair and just go by whoever filed first," Palaganas said, regardless of whether they opted for direct deposit or paper check, to help pay their bills on time.

Weeks prior to the launch of the online PUA application, Labor Director David Dell'Isola repeatedly recommended opening a bank account for electronic fund transfers, which he said is much faster and safer than getting a paper check.

Receiving a paper check, however, is an option for the PUA program that many have chosen.

When sought for comment about paper checks, Department of Administration Director Edward Birn on Thursday recommended posing the questions to the Guam Department of Labor.

Labor had yet to respond to questions about paper check payments, as of press time.

27,850 unemployment claims

As of Thursday, 27,850 or about 82% of 33,914 COVID-displaced workers have filed their PUA claims, according to data from Labor's special projects coordinator, Hannah Cho.

The separation notices are based on the reporting of 1,914 employers on hireguam.com as of Thursday.

Palaganas was among those furloughed, and when the auto business she worked for exhausted all of its Paycheck Protection Program loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration, she stopped receiving a paycheck.

Her brother was also laid off from his job because of the crisis.

"My first priority is to help my family and myself in this financial crisis, like paying bills and other important debts that I have," she said.

With next week's release of the fourth batch of PUA payments, total relief funds distributed will be about $141 million, including nearly $11.6 million going to taxes, Labor said.

Changing payment mode

Palaganas said with the payment delays, she's been trying to change her payment mode from paper check to direct deposit.

"But so many times I've called, emailed and looked online on Hire Guam for help but none of them seems to work. So all I'm hoping now is for a miracle from God to help us all," she said.

Others echoed Palaganas' concerns about fairness, saying the funds come from the same account regardless of the payment mode.

Dell'Isola, in a Thursday statement, said he's heard the concerns of those who are having difficulty getting through 311 due to the high volume of calls and limited Labor staff.

"We are working diligently to focus on the needs of the people and help them understand the program. We are focusing on getting millions of pandemic relief into the hands of our people while also protecting them from criminal activity," he said.

'It's been way too long'

Tish Santos, who's been working on reduced hours since March, said she's been patiently waiting for assistance so she can continue supporting her three boys.

"I'm behind on bills and it's stacking up so high, I feel like I almost can't breathe," she said. "I keep my faith and I'm waiting patiently but it's been way too long."

She said her payment date was June 22. She said she called Labor days later to inquire, and she was told she gave the wrong routing number for the bank, so she's been included among those who will be sent a paper check.

"She (the Labor representative) said five to seven days for a check. That was over 10 days ago," Santos said, adding she "Did a follow-up on Tuesday and this DOL employee informed me that all (automated clearing house) rejections list was sent to DOA on Monday. I checked my mail all week and still nothing."

With her bank information corrected, she said she's waiting for bank deposits for her last two weeks of benefits that she filed. This is in addition to the paper check she's been waiting for.

Identity theft measures

Guam Labor on Thursday said the U.S Department of Labor and the FBI have announced measures to protect people against identity theft and false unemployment claims.

"The administration and I are working closely to ensure the integrity of this program is a top priority," Dell'Isola said. "We will continue to work together to get our people paid out while also protecting them against identity theft."

Dell'Isola said his agency has found cases of identity theft and fraudulent claims on Guam.

FBI advice

Guam Labor shared the FBI's advice to the public, to be on the lookout for the following suspicious activities:

  • Receiving communications regarding unemployment insurance forms when you have not applied for unemployment benefits
  • Unauthorized transactions on your bank or credit card statements related to unemployment benefits
  • Any fees involved in filing or qualifying for unemployment insurance
  • Unsolicited inquiries related to unemployment benefits
  • Fictitious websites and social media pages mimicking those of government agencies

If you need help

Those needing help related to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance are advised to call 311, 735-0527 or 735-0532 on weekdays. For login issues email ​webadmin@dol.guam.gov​, and for claim or weekly certification issues email pua.hotline@dol.guam.gov​. 

Haidee Eugenio Gilbert

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