Labor-Department-Unemployment-Puerto Rico There was an apparent calmness at the in-person and drop-in service at the Convention Center in Miramar, Wednesday morning. Thousands of Puerto Ricans are still awaiting unemployment benefits, as experts alert poverty rate is already past 40%, higher than any U.S. state.
Image via Mivette Vega

A better electronic system and fewer gatherings of people in one place are some of the promises made by the new secretary on his first day of service.

San Juan — The hundreds of unemployed workers who arrived Wednesday at the Centro de Convenciones in Puerto Rico had a very different experience than the thousands who have filed unemployment claims in person since June 1. Yet, the unemployment rate on the island is expected to roar past 30%.

Those who received one of the 300 turns available daily at the agency offices were already inside the building before 9:30 a.m., waiting to be served by the Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH by its Spanish initials) personnel.

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This normalized situation coincides with Carlos Rivera’s first day at work as a designated secretary of the agency.  Rivera, a lawyer, was named by Gov. Wanda Vásquez after Briseida Torres resigned from her position as DTRH secretary.

When asked why the process of applying for unemployment went better on Thursday as compared to past days and weeks, Rivera said in a press conference earlier on Wednesday, “The staff came to work; all of the personnel were in attendance. People have received training and orientation. I can say that today things are working because the staff knows about the situations that are taking place; they have learned how to address them. The reality is from one day to the next the situation has improved, and could also be because employees are giving the extra mile.” 

Before, people were having to break the curfew to be able to claim a turn. Yanira Soto, from Moca, traveled a considerable distance to claim an extension of her benefits. She wasn’t able to communicate with the agency by phone or online.

“This is the first time I’ve come and people said the line has moved quickly. I’m a professional housekeeper, so I will ask for the extension of 13 additional weeks of benefits that have been offered,” Soto told The Americano.

Joselyn Mercado, a resident of Guaynabo, visited the agency in person after days of trying to communicate by phone.

“I arrived at 6:30 a.m. I already have the benefit but I came to ask some questions because I tried doing so by phone many times, and nobody answered. Today, the process here was quick,” Mercado told The Americano.  

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Puerto Rico Treasury Department (Departmento de Hacienda) Secretary Francisco Parés accompanied Rivera during the press conference. Both officials acknowledged that technology is the main improvement needed within the DTRH for better service. The Treasury’s internal revenue unified system (SURI by its Spanish initials) has worked well since its inception. Parés will support Rivera in working out technology issues by either creating a new system or using SURI. 

Rivera said his goal is for the DTRH to have — by Monday — a more efficient process of claiming unemployment benefits.

“I’m 100 percent committed to finding short and long-term solutions. In the short term, we have to begin expanding services, eliminate standing in line under the sun, and having so many people gather in one place. We must decentralize the Centro de Convenciones and start working on those claims. In the long term, we need a more agile and efficient electronic system,” said Rivera.

Many People Still Waiting for Unemployment Benefits

Currently, the government has processed only about 3,000 of 87,000 requests received since launching an online application platform on April 28, while feuding with a technology provider about who was to blame for the delays.

Former DTRH secretary Torres announced on Tuesday she was resigning “for personal reasons” shortly after meeting privately with Gov. Wanda Vázquez amid growing criticism of how her administration has handled the distribution of federal aid related to the pandemic. 

She said her agency has distributed more than $1.2 billion and helped more than 250,000 people since the beginning of April despite “multiple technological challenges and a lack of specialized personnel.”

The delay in the distribution of benefits comes as economists warn the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people could see its unemployment rate soar past 30%. U.S. Census data show the poverty rate is already past 40%, higher than any U.S. state.

A Controversial Designation

Rivera has to be confirmed for his position by the Senate. His designation has stirred controversy. When Rivera served as the Justice Department’s assistant secretary for minors and family, criminal charges were filed against 11-year-old Alma Yariel Cruz Cruz. The charges filed in 2017 stated that Cruz had threatened to push two girls who were bullying her down a stairwell. The newly-named official said this case was filed before he served in the minors and family position.

“The case had been previously filed. It was certainly an unfortunate situation for all sides. There were three minors involved — one charged and two affected. For me, it’s regrettable to go through being accused or affected by a court process. Nobody wants that. The best possible scenario would be for this to never have happened,” said Rivera.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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