CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky I. Benavente on Wednesday said the second round of unemployment benefits is coming soon.

But she said there are new requirements that the CNMI will need to follow in order to participate in the federal unemployment assistance programs.

Vicky Benavente

CNMI Department of Labor Secretary Vicky I. Benavente gives a presentation during a Society of Human Resource Management meeting on Wednesday at Hyatt Regency Saipan.

Photo by K-Andrea Evarose S. Limol

On Dec. 27, 2020, President Donald J. Trump signed into law the Continued Assistance Act of 2020, which allows for the extension of the programs.

Benavente said the CNMI has yet to receive approval from the U.S. DOL so the Commonwealth can begin accepting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance applications for the second round.

Thus far, for the first round, the CNMI has received $196 million of the $240 million grant awarded by the federal government for unemployment benefits, she said.

These funds have helped boost the local economy through consumer spending, Benavente said.

But the Commonwealth has to comply with federal guidelines, which include weekly reporting of figures to the USDOL; creating a benefits payment control unit to address potential overpayments and fraud collections; as well as hiring adjudicators and creating a call center to address community inquiries.

Benavente said CNMI DOL has learned a lot of lessons since the inception of the federal unemployment programs.

And despite the unconventional working conditions, she said her department has tried its best to implement the programs.

Over 70 people have joined the CNMI DOL team to assist with the implementation of the programs, she added.

The department has had to adapt and adjust over the past 10 months, moving from outdoor and indoor in-person appointments to temporarily closing offices to the public in order to allow time to adjudicate the mounting applications, Benavente said.

Over the past 10 months, she said the department has received over 10,000 emails and more than 10,000 calls regarding the unemployment programs.

For its part, the benefits payment control unit has detected over 18,000 fraudulent claims that amount to roughly $3 million in returned benefits.

Most of these claims were filed outside of the CNMI, Benavente said.

The benefits payment control unit  also detected more than 970 PUA overpayments, 260 of which were given to unqualified aliens, she added.

She said the USDOL warned the CNMI DOL about a crime ring that was targeting several jurisdictions to fraudulently claim unemployment benefits.

As of Dec. 15, 2020, approximately 13,000 PUA claimants, or 73% of all CNMI PUA claimants, had received or were in the process of receiving their benefits, Benavente said.

Benavente said if it were up to her, she would ensure that all unemployed persons in the CNMI receive unemployment benefits.

However, she said applicants must meet federal requirements before they can avail themselves of the funds.

Benavente said that in the second round of unemployment benefits, CNMI-Only Transitional Worker, or CW-1s, will be eligible to apply.

She estimates that roughly 8,000 CW-1 permit holders and 18,000 CNMI residents will submit claims in the second round.

“I’m so grateful that we have some federal help,” she said.

CNMI DOL remains closed to in-person appointments, but for more information contact the PUA call center at 322-8870/8871/8873/8874/8876/8877/8878/8879/8880.

Inquiries may also be directed to info@puamarianas.com

Junior Reporter

K-Andrea is a Gates Millennium Scholar who earned her bachelor of arts degree in political science from St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. Since joining the MV team in Feb. 2020, she has been covering the political, environmental, and community beats.

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