The scheme perpetrated by a group of students of a private school in San Juan makes many wonder what is wrong with the system.
SAN JUAN — Thirty students from a private all-male Jesuit school in San Juan were claiming unemployment benefits, receiving checks for amounts that in a couple of cases went over $6,000 and $7,000. The problem? None of the students, whose ages range from 14 to 18, had worked before.
The students of Colegio San Ignacio de Loyola, where the annual tuition costs over $12,000, used their real names and addresses when requesting the benefits, but added false information about their age and the jobs they had supposedly lost due to COVID-19. The Department of Labor reportedly didn’t corroborate the data, allowing for the checks to go through.
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It’s estimated that Puerto Rico’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program has lost millions to various fraud schemes. During the last two weeks, the police recovered $153,000 from 29 individuals, and formally opened investigations against two of the students of the private school, whose own mothers turned them to the authorities.
The fraud schemes are a slap in the face to the tens of thousands Puerto Ricans who have yet to receive unemployment benefits they are legitimately owed.
“It’s frustrating. It wasn’t one person, it was over 30 students from a well-known school, students that don’t really need the money because their parents are well-off,” says Giovanna Montero, a 21-year-old who lost her job at a hotel in March, has yet to receive any PUA. “How do 30 students get the money so easily and those who have been applying since March are not even able to receive an eligibility confirmation?”
Per official data, as of June 28, 51,336 Puerto Ricans who qualified to receive regular unemployment assistance or PUA had not received their first check. Another 56,026 applications were under review for “controversial points,” which means the Department of Labor was requesting additional information to validate them.
Among the latter is Montero, who says she has been sending emails to the Department of Labor on a daily basis since March with no response.
“A week ago, I finally got in contact with someone after waiting 4 and a half hours on the phone but he told me he couldn’t help me,” Montero says. “I now have to wait 48-72 labor hours, so basically 10 days, for someone to get in contact with me for an interview to verify my story.”
She’s still waiting. For someone like her, the long and dreadful wait is life-changing. Lacking any other source of income, she had to move back into her parents’ house in Arecibo. She can no longer afford her rent in San Juan, the island’s capital. Her mother has taken to Facebook where a group named “Desempleo 101,” with almost 15,000 members, provides the latest information about how to get through the online unemployment system.
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Thousands of others are experiencing the same nightmare. Edith Rodríguez, a wedding planner from Canóvanas who had to close down her business, has yet to receive PUA.
“I had 185 weddings planned for this year and I had to postpone them until the next and following year,” Rodríguez said. “Imagine all that kind of money going down to zero. It’s very difficult.”
The shutdown of her business is only one hit. She just received the news that her husband’s company is cutting 50% of the workforce. In October, her husband will also lose his job, leaving the family without a steady stream of income.
Amidst it all, she mainly worries about her employees, who have described struggling to pay rent and even buy groceries.
“I have a lot of people who depend on me,” Rodríguez says. “They call me crying, desperate, some even suicidal. They say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I have no work, no job. How am I gonna pay the bills, how am I gonna sustain my family?’ People are going crazy, desperate.”