Unemployment Compensation for Puerto Ricans Affected by Hurricane Maria

 Puerto Rico Extension of Disaster Unemployment Assistance: An estimated 10,000+ Puerto Ricans who were jobless after #HurricaneMaria and #HurricaneIrma could now qualify for up to 52 weeks of Disaster Unemployment Assistance under just-announced extended federal program. The following resource was put together by the National Employment Law Project, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, and LatinoJustice PRLDEF  to help advocates better assist workers who may qualify for this essential aid.    

Follow the links to navigate the article:

What is the history of the new extension of Disaster Unemployment Assistance in Puerto Rico?

Who is eligible to receive the new extended DUA benefits?

If the person never previously filed for DUA in response to the hurricanes, how does he or she establish “good cause” to qualify for the new extended DUA?

What are the basic requirements to qualify for the extension of DUA in Puerto Rico?

What documentation is required to apply for the extended DUA?

How does DUA differ from regular UI in Puerto Rico?

How much in additional DUA benefits will the average worker receive?

Is the person still eligible for the extended DUA benefits if he or she worked during the disaster period or was employed part-time?

Were workers who previously received DUA after the hurricanes notified of the new extended DUA program? 

How should workers apply for the new extended DUA benefits?

If the DUA application is approved, how will the individual be paid the benefits?

If the worker is denied the new DUA benefits or experiences undue barriers in attempting to apply, what is the process to appeal or challenge the determination?

What additional steps are being taken to help people access the new DUA extension?

Additional Resources/Links

 

What is the history of the new extension of Disaster Unemployment Assistance in Puerto Rico?  

  • On January 22, 2019, the Puerto Rico Labor Department announced the availability of up to 52 weeks of federally-funded “disaster unemployment assistance” (DUA) for workers and self-employed individuals who lost their jobs due to Hurricanes Maria and Irma. 
  • The National Employment Law Project (NELP) estimates that over 10,000 Puerto Ricans could qualify for lump-sum payments potentially totaling nearly $30 million.  The individual payments will typically range from around $2,000 to $3,000 for those who receive the maximum weeks of additional assistance dating back to September 2017.  
  • The unprecedented expansion of DUA was authorized by a federal law signed on October 5, 2018, which boosted the basic 26 weeks of DUA by an additional 26 weeks for workers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands who were left jobless after the devastation caused by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
  • This surpasses the extra 13 weeks of DUA authorized by Congress in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.    
  • In a letter sent to the Secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources by the U.S. Department of Labor, Puerto Rico was given especially broad authority to implement the extended DUA program.  

 
Who is eligible to receive the new extended DUA benefits?

  • As clarified by the federal Labor Department letter, the extended DUA benefits are available to three main groups of people:
    • Those who ran out of their basic 26 weeks of DUA after the hurricanes are potentially eligible to receive an additional 26 weeks of DUA benefits.
    • Those who ran out of their basic 26 weeks of regular unemployment insurance (UI) after the hurricanes are potentially eligible to receive an additional 26 weeks of DUA benefits.
    • Those who never applied for DUA after the hurricanes and can provide a legitimate reason for failing to do so (i.e., “good cause”) are potentially eligible to receive the full 52 weeks of benefits (i.e., the original 26 weeks of DUA, which they didn’t apply for, in addition to the new 26 weeks of benefits).    

 
If the person never previously filed for DUA in response to the hurricanes, how does he or she establish “good cause” to qualify for the new extended DUA?  

  • Anyone who was receiving regular UI in response to the storm but did not apply for DUA during the disaster period does not have to show “good cause” for not applying for the new extended DUA benefits according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • For all other workers who are applying for DUA for the first time to qualify for the extended benefits, the U.S. Department of Labor has stated that “good cause” exists “when the individual’s circumstances or the widespread impacts of the disaster are such that it is reasonable to believe that the individual did not know about the availability of DUA or it is otherwise not reasonable to expect a claim to be filed in 30 days.” (Unemployment Insurance Program Letter, No. 22-08, Q&A, Question 1).  
  • In Puerto Rico, workers previously had until February 9, 2018, to file for DUA in response to Hurricane Maria or Hurricane Irma.  

 
What are the basic requirements to qualify for the extension of DUA in Puerto Rico?

  • The person must file for the new DUA benefits by the March 25, 2019, deadline (unless he or she has “good cause” for not meeting the filing deadline).
  • The person must have been unemployed as a direct result of Hurricane Maria between September 20, 2017 and September 22, 2018, or as a direct result of Hurricane Irma between September 10, 2017 and September 15, 2018.  (No payments of extended DUA can be made for weeks of unemployment that fall outside the officially declared disaster periods.)
  • The person must respond to questions required by the Puerto Rico Department of Labor to determine their weeks of eligibility, including whether he or she worked or received earnings during any of the weeks for which he or she is claiming the extra weeks of benefits during the period described above.   
  • In contrast to the rules that normally apply to collect regular UI or DUA, workers filing for the extended DUA in Puerto Rico will not have to show that they searched for work each week that they are claiming the extra weeks of benefits.  The U.S. Department of Labor directed Puerto Rico to waive this requirement because workers were not notified of the requirement during the designated disaster period (thus, they should not be required to reconstruct their work search history after the fact).     

What documentation is required to apply for the extended DUA?

  • Most people will have to provide information documenting their employment or self-employment during the disaster period and their earnings or wages by providing a copy of their 2016 tax return, or other documents that show the individual’s work history and that he or she was unemployed during the disaster period (such as pay stubs and a letter from the employer).    
  • Those people who previously received DUA as a result of the hurricanes and ran out of their 26 weeks of DUA benefits should already have their wage history information in the Puerto Rico Labor Department’s system.  However, to avoid any potential issues, the agency is still encouraging these individuals to also provide their 2016 tax returns and other wage and earnings documents, if possible.
  • The individual has 21 calendar days to submit the necessary documentation from the date that he or she filed for the new DUA claim for benefits.  

 
How does DUA differ from regular UI in Puerto Rico?

  • There are several basic requirements to normally qualify for DUA:
    • The person much have been unemployed a “direct result” of a federally declared disaster, such as Hurricane Maria;
    • The person must not have been eligible for regular UI, which includes people who ran out of their 26 weeks of regular UI, and people who didn’t earn enough to qualify or otherwise failed to meet the UI eligibility rules;
    • The person was a self-employed business owner or an “independent contractor” who could no longer work as result of the disaster.  
  • The main differences between regular UI and DUA in Puerto Rico are as follows:  
    • The minimum DUA benefit is higher than the minimum UI benefit. The minimum DUA benefit is $59 per week, compared to a minimum of $7 per week for regular UI in Puerto Rico.  
    • Thus, anyone who ran out of their regular UI and received less than $59 per week in regular UI benefits will receive the higher DUA benefit if they qualify for the new DUA extension.
    • In contrast to regular UI, which requires that the individual have earned at least $280 during the one-year “base period” before filing for benefits (with wages earned in a least two quarters, and wages of at least $75 in one of the quarters), there is no minimum earnings requirement to qualify for DUA.  Instead, the federal law requires that the individual received his or her “principal source of income” from employer wages or self-employment earnings connected with a job that was lost due to the storm.   a
    • In contrast to regular UI, the “base period” (which is the period when wages are reviewed to determine the amount of benefits the individual will receive) is the prior tax year (i.e., the 2016 tax year), not the one-year period before the individual applied for DUA.  Thus, if someone previously qualified for UI in response to the hurricanes and subsequently qualifies for the extended DUA, his or her weekly DUA benefits may differ in amount from the prior UI benefit.  

 
How much in additional DUA benefits will the average worker receive?

  • The minimum DUA benefit in Puerto Rico is $59 per week, and the maximum benefit is $133 per week.  The average person who previously received DUA in response to the hurricanes collected $77 per week in benefits.  Thus, the average person who previously received DUA may be eligible for roughly $2,000 in total benefits if he or so collects the full 26 weeks of extended DUA.
  • The average person who previously received regular UI in response to the hurricanes collected $118 per week in benefits. Thus, the average person who received regular UI and now qualifies for the extended 26 weeks of DUA may receive roughly $3,000 in total DUA benefits.  
  • For the group of workers or self-employed business owners who never applied for DUA after the hurricanes and are found eligible for the new DUA benefits, they will be entitled to receive up to 52 weeks of DUA, ranging between $59 to $133 per week depending on their prior wages and earnings.
  • If the individual worked less than full-time prior to the disaster, then the Puerto Rico Labor Department will reduce the individual’s DUA benefits to take into account the proportion of hours worked less than full time (thus, some of these workers may receive less than the minimum $59 per week in DUA benefits).   

 
Is the person still eligible for the extended DUA benefits if he or she worked during the disaster period or was employed part-time?

  • To be eligible for the new DUA extension, the individual must have been “unemployed” during the officially declared disaster period.  
  • If the individual was employed full-time during a specific week after the storm, then unemployed for other weeks, he or she will qualify for the weeks of unemployment that are still directly related to the disaster.
  • In addition, if an individual worked less than full-time during the disaster period or in odd jobs, he or she may still qualify for DUA is many cases.  

 
Were workers who previously received DUA after the hurricanes notified of the new extended DUA program?

  • The Puerto Rico Department of Labor sent out notices in Spanish to people who previously received DUA after the hurricanes describing the new program and how to apply.  However, because there are so many people who were displaced by the storms, many people who should have been notified may never have received Puerto Rico’s notice.  
  • In addition, on January 22, 2019, the Puerto Rico Department of Labor placed an announcement on its website describing the new benefits.  However, as of February 5, 2019, the Puerto Rico agency has not publicized the announcement on social media or in other public forums that we are aware of.    
  • In helping individuals to apply for benefits, it is important to determine how they received notice of the program of new DUA benefits in case issues arise related to their applications and they were not properly instructed how to apply (e.g., did they receive the noticed mailed by the Puerto Rico Department of Labor).    

 
How should workers apply for the new extended DUA benefits?

  • In contrast to the application process available to workers who apply for regular UI in Puerto Rico, there is not an option to apply on-line for the new DUA benefits.  Thus, all applications have to be either filed in person or by phone.  
  • The main phone number is 787-945-7900, which is available from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday (Atlantic Standard Time).
  • The Puerto Rico Department of Labor urges people living in Puerto Rico to apply in person at one of the 11 local offices, which are listed here.  The agency’s announcement urges people to apply in person on certain days based on the last digit of their Social Security number:  Monday (0 or 1), Tuesday (2 or 3), Wednesday (4 or 5), Thursday (6 or 7), Friday (8 or 9).    
  • As indicated above, all applicants should bring copies of their 2016 IRS tax return if possible, or other documents that will help determine their wage and employment history in 2016.  
  • For people not living in Puerto Rico, they may apply by phone by dialing either 787-945-7900 or 787945-7898 between the hours of 7:30 a.m. or 4:30 p.m. (Atlantic Standard Time).  These out-of-state applications are referred to as “interstate claims.”  
  • When applying for the new DUA benefits from outside Puerto Rico, these applicants will be instructed by the Puerto Rico Labor Department staff how to submit the required documents by mail or email. (If the option to provide the documents by mail or email is not made available, the individual should be sure to object if necessary).  

 
If the DUA application is approved, how will the individual be paid the benefits?

  • The DUA benefits payments will be made by the Puerto Rico Department of Labor “retroactively,” which means that people will receive a lump-sum payment for all the eligible weeks of unemployment between September 2017 and September 2018 for which they are approved.
  • Benefit checks should be processed within a few weeks. However, if there is a delay of more than a few weeks in processing the benefits, the individual should contact the Puerto Rico Department of Labor to notify them of the delay, and document their communications with the agency (indicating the date and substance of the communication).   

 
If the worker is denied the new DUA benefits or experiences undue barriers in attempting to apply, what is the process to appeal or challenge the determination?

  • Because this is a major new program that may pose serious application challenges for many qualified applicants, it is critically important for the workers and their advocates to document their communications with the Puerto Rico Department of Labor (including any unsuccessful attempted communications) and to maintain all notices and other documents associated with the individual’s application.  This information will create the necessary track record to assist the individual to challenge any negative determinations, if necessary.
  • If the individual receives a notice from the Puerto Rico Labor Department indicating he or she has been denied the new DUA benefits (or incorrectly calculating the amount of benefits), the individual may  appeal the determination.
  • The individual has 60 days to appeal the Puerto Rico Labor Department’s determination (the clock starts from the date the determination was issued by the agency).  According to the federal law,  individuals must be notified in writing of the appeal decision no later than 30 days after the receipt or postmarked date of the appeal to the Puerto Rico agency (thus, it is important to maintain a record of when the appeal was mailed by the applicant).   
  • If the appeal to the Puerto Rico Labor Department is denied, the individual has 15 days (determined from the date that the decision was mailed) to appeal to the U.S. Department of Labor Regional Administrator.  The appeal should be sent to:  Timothy Martin, Acting Regional Administrator, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administrator, 25 New Sudbury Street, Rm. E-350, Boston, MA 02203 (phone: 617-788-0170/email: RO1-RA-BOS@dol.gov).  The Regional Administrator must issue a decision on the appeal within 45 days.  

 
What additional steps are being taken to help people access the new DUA extension?  

  • Because well over a year has passed since the storms, there is a critical need to properly identify, notify, and process all people who are eligible for the retroactive DUA payments, including the large number of Puerto Rican families who have relocated across the United States.
  • To help spread the word about the rights of workers to collect the new DUA benefits, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, Inc., LatinoJustice PRLDEF, and NELP are partnering on a DUA outreach and education campaign.  
  • The groups have prepared fact sheets on the new DUA extension in Spanish and English, which are being disseminated in Puerto Rico and across the United States to support the initiative.
  • In addition, community groups and local Legal Services offices in Puerto Rico and several states (including Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania) are helping where possible to provide advice and support to Puerto Ricans to access these benefits.    

Additional Resources/Links: