Rebooting Puerto Rico’s Disaster Unemployment Assistance Program

Puerto Ricans who lost their jobs as a result of Hurricanes Maria and Irma may be entitled to up to 52 weeks of federally-funded Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA).  The National Employment Law Project estimates that as many as 10,000 Puerto Ricans may be eligible for $30 million in DUA benefits.  On May 24th, Puerto Rico received approval to extend the DUA filing deadline to June 24th.  As described below, the 30-day extension provides an exceptional opportunity to reboot the program and ensure that all those who qualify receive the lump-sum, retroactive payments to which they are entitled.

Barriers to Accessing DUA in Puerto Rico

The DUA program is available to all those who lost their jobs as a result of the hurricanes, including anyone  who ran out of either their basic 26 weeks of DUA or regular unemployment insurance (UI) benefits, as well as those who never applied for DUA for legitimate reasons.  While the Puerto Rico Department of Labor has taken important steps to extend the filing deadlines and better publicize the program since the program launch on January 22nd, the agency’s application requirements (as described on-line and in public notices) are overly  cumbersome and often exceed the federal mandates regulating the DUA program.

  • Workers must provide their 2016 tax returns and complete several forms requiring documentation of their prior wages and work history, which is information that is already available for the vast majority of workers who previously collected DUA and UI.
  • A year and half since the storms, workers are required to produce a letter from their employer explaining why they left their jobs after the storms, which is not required by federal law, and it is information that is already available for most workers who previously collected DUA and UI.
  • Workers who relocated outside of Puerto Rico are told to call a designated phone number (787-945-7898) that has several menu options, none of which reference the DUA program.

Reforms to Help Reboot the Program

To maximize access to DUA, which could provide an estimated $30 million in benefits to qualified workers, Puerto Rico should take the following steps as early as possible before the new June 24th deadline:

  • Government officials should convene a press conference publicizing the DUA program and actively engage press, television, radio outlets, and community groups in Puerto Rico and in those states where families relocated after the storms.
  • The Puerto Rico Department of Labor should establish a phone number specifically designated for workers applying for DUA, including workers in Puerto Rico and those who have relocated outside of Puerto Rico.
  • The Puerto Rico Department of Labor should streamline the application process to eliminate all forms and documentation not specifically required by the U.S. Department of Labor, including the multiple forms and the employer verification letter referenced above.
  • On a weekly basis, Puerto Rico should publicize the number of workers who have received DUA, and encourage workers to apply before the June 24th

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