Image via Mivette Vega for The Americano The Americano spent a day at Centro de Convenciones in San Juan, where the Labor Department offers services temporarily. These are some of the unemployed workers on the island and their stories of frustration to file and receive unemployment benefits. From left to right: Juana Santos, Yaricsa De La Rosa, Jill Pillot, and Gabriel Rivera.
Image via Mivette Vega for The Americano

Laid-off workers share their stories of frustration about the island’s inefficient Labor Department systems.

SAN JUAN — Yaricsa De La Rosa disobeyed Puerto Rico’s curfew last week to get a number from the Department of Labor and Human Resources (DTRH by its Spanish initials). It was the only way she could claim unemployment benefits to feed her three children, after trying unsuccessfully to fill out the application online and by phone.

She is not alone. Thousands of unemployed workers have had to break social distancing rules to visit the DTRH headquarters in San Juan or the Centro de Convenciones, where the Department of Labor has opened temporary facilities including a drive-in service to deal with the crisis because they were unable to access the services online and by phone.

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The DTRH has received approximately 400,000 claims for regular unemployment benefits and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) since the pandemic started in mid-March. About half of the applicants have received aid — in part due to technical issues with the agency’s website. The Americano spoke with five people while outside the Centro de Convenciones last week.

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On that day, De La Rosa got 56 of the 300 numbers the agency distributes daily.

“I tried using the drive-in service last week, but it didn’t work for me. Today, I was able to solve the problem. They had my address wrong [in the system]; I got that fixed. That’s why I hadn’t received anything since April 1, when I filled the application online,” Yaricsa De La Rosa said to The Americano.

Yaricsa works at a cafeteria located within the University of Puerto Rico. Her return-to-work date is all but uncertain as in-person classes might not resume until 2021. 

The young mother of a 6-year-old, 4-year-old, and 2-year-old has struggled during these months without any income. She has not been able to pay basic bills, such as electricity and water.

“There have been many difficulties,” she said to The Americano at Centro de Convenciones. “Figuring out where to get food for the children. Thank God I’ve gotten help from family members. I hope the check arrives soon.”

Earlier this month, a Postal Service employee posted a video on social media, where he said that many DTRH checks were not delivered because the phrase “the same” appeared where the recipient’s address should be on the envelope. The worker could face a penalty for sharing the video, but a lawyer publicly offered to represent him if necessary. 

Carlos Rivera, secretary of the Labor Department, said June 11 that Evertec is the company in charge of validating postal addresses and mailing unemployment checks. Still, he took responsibility for the mixup on behalf of the department.

For its part, Evertec rejected being the culprit for the mistakes, saying that the number of checks with problems were “minimal.”

The Many Faces of the Unemployed

Insurance agent María Lugo has had a different hurdle in trying to access unemployment benefits. She applied in March but didn’t receive a reply. She was finally able to communicate with the DTRH by phone, and a rep asked her to go in-person to address the issue.

Her application had not processed “because they had no evidence of my earned income,” Lugo said, adding that she was asked to bring documents showing proof of her income after “miraculously” getting someone on the line. “He told me to stop by in-person, that they would guide me because I have many health conditions.” She was eventually able to resolve her situation with the agency.

Juana Santos, a Dominican cosmetologist from Santurce, is requesting unemployment benefits for the first time since she moved to Puerto Rico 32 years ago. She was able to make it through the past few months without an income thanks to some savings she had. 

“It has been difficult because I have seen many people suffering from hunger,” Santos told The Americano. “I have seen many Dominicans starve. There are many people who have not received unemployment benefits since day one. It has been very difficult, and I have seen this happen to clients and neighbors.” 

Gabriel Rivera arrived at the Centro de Convenciones at 3:30 a.m. on the same day, Wednesday, for his second attempt. This time he brought a beach chair, preparing for a long wait. He had tried to resolve his unemployment claim the day before, but when he arrived at 6 a.m., there were no numbers left. He had applied for unemployment benefits in March but had yet to receive a single check due to a question on his claim. 

“Supposedly, within 10 days, I will begin to receive the benefit,” he said to The Americano. “I hadn’t received anything because of a query on their end. Since the online platform was not working properly, I wasn’t able to solve the problem remotely.”

Gabriel is a waiter at a restaurant located in one of the most renowned hotels in San Juan, Hotel San Juan in Isla Verde. He’s waiting to be called back to work, but tourism is one of the economic sectors most affected by the pandemic. It represents 12% of the island’s economy and, according to Jorge Argüelles, president of the United Retailers Association (CUD by its Spanish initials), the sector expects to lose some $800 million during the pandemic.

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It was precisely Puerto Rico’s beautiful landscape and culture that made Belgium designer Jill Pillot move to the island almost a year ago. For the past four months, she had worked hard to open a clothing store featuring her designs, as well as a sewing school offering classes to children and adults. She was finally able to open her business in January, and a month later had to close due to the pandemic.

“I’m trying to build this school for the community, and after all the work, I was able to open in January,” Pillot said. Before Puerto Rico, she had owned and operated a business in California for 25 years. “Then the pandemic came, and I had to close. I need some help now to keep the rent payments going for the business. I’m not giving up; I want to live here. I applied for unemployment and got through to a certain level within the system, so I had to come here to see what’s happening.”

“This Has To Be Resolved”

On June 9, Briseida Torres, the former secretary of the DTRH, resigned after almost three months of receiving continuous criticism for delays in the processing of thousands of applications.

For weeks, people complained about getting an error message when they tried to complete their application online. If there was an issue with their application, the unemployed workers did not have the option to fix it online. When they tried to call the agency, they got a busy tone.

Towards the end of April, Governor Wanda Vázquez made a surprise visit to the DTRH headquarters and criticized the ineffective claims process. 

“I know that workers from the Department of Labor are working tirelessly to send unemployment benefits to the people who need them, but the situations that have occurred with the technological systems are unacceptable,” Vázquez said at the time. “This has to be resolved.”

The situation didn’t get better in May. On June 1, the agency expanded its services to the Centro de Convenciones. But unemployed workers today continue to struggle with claiming their benefits.

Hundreds arrive daily to Centro de Convenciones only to find long lines.

On Monday, Carlos Rivera, the new secretary of the Labor Department, announced the drive-in service was disabled in Centro de Convenciones because they will reopen offices in other municipalities. This week the offices in Mayagüez, San Germán and Arecibo, will reopen.

In an interview with NotiUno on Monday, Rivera also said they are using the Turnopr site to give people a number for addressing their issue. The secretary said the agency is handling almost 4,000 cases daily.

However, the situation for workers may only get more complicated. On June 11, the  United States Secretary of Labor, Eugene Scalia, confirmed President Trump’s opposition to the continued payment of the PEUC, a $600 weekly supplement, past July 31.

According to The New York Times, House Democrats included a six-month extension of the full benefit in the $3 trillion relief measure they pushed through last month.

After an unexpected job increase, Republicans and the White House resisted the move, arguing that doing so could discourage people from returning to work.

DTRH has received 400,000 applications, of which just 70,000 unemployed workers have received the PEUC aid.

According to DTRH figures, 257,358 people in Puerto Rico have received regular unemployment and PEUC benefits, for a total disbursement of $1,170,113,953.10. The benefit payments were made from April 1 through June 4.

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