The first round of funding for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) will be received as soon as the week’s end.
This projected timeline was just one area of discussion at a virtual informational briefing with the Guam Department of Labor (GDOL), hosted by Sen. Régine Biscoe Lee, the legislative chair on labor committee.
“It’s been more than two months since workers have begun to lose their jobs and income due to this pandemic. Nobody in government should be completely satisfied with how long it’s taken to get assistance to these residents, but I know GDOL is working tirelessly to get us to that point,” Lee said. “I’m thankful they took the time today to answer questions and address concerns from this legislature—but most importantly I’m grateful for the chance to share the information both employers and employees need to know.”
The following is a rundown of the questions posed by senators, and the answers provided by GDOL special projects coordinator Hannah Cho.
Highlights include details on eligibility requirements, unemployment assistance being able to transition to other labor programs, and the ability for employees to self-certify their eligibility.
“It’s a difficult time and a difficult process. We are working around the clock to ensure we launch the program and get our people the financial help that they need,” Cho said.
Q: If someone was separated from their job, but then came back to work, would they still qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)?
A: The main qualifier for unemployment assistance is your income. If an employee is working part-time or full-time, whether they are eligible is based on the income cap for Guam.
NOTE: The approved maximum income to qualify for PUA is below $495 per week. This reflects the $345 standard allowance plus an additional $150 in “earnings disregard.”
Q: Does the amount of money you made before the pandemic factor into the eligibility for PUA?
A: The eligibility for PUA is based on an employee’s current weekly income, not their previous earnings. You could’ve made $5 a week or $100,000 a week—that doesn’t have any bearing on whether you qualify. Eligibility is based on how much you make now.
Q: Will employees be able to get benefits retroactively if they lost their jobs in April?
A: Yes. Both PUA and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) are retroactive. During the application process, employees will be able to answer how many weeks they have been furloughed and when were their wages cut. Claimants will have to apply weekly, because there’s the potential they got their job back or found a new job. But the initial benefit will be retroactive. (Employee applications for PUA are not available yet.)
Q: How do self-employed individuals like gig workers show they qualify for PUA?
A: Self-employed individuals include freelancers, gig workers, and small business owners with no employees—everyone from a dog walker to an event planner. If the applicant is a musician that used to perform at a restaurant, and now the business is shut down so they can no longer perform and earn their income, that individual is directly impacted by COVID-19 and therefore would qualify for unemployment benefits. You will also need something to show that you were making money, and because of COVID-19 you’re no longer making money. This can be bank statements, 1099s, invoices, contracts, a letter from your biggest customer—just something to prove that you had an income and you no longer do because of COVID-19.
Q: Do the benefits under PUA and FPUC end for claimants when employers start re-hiring them?
A: It would depend on the claimant’s weekly earnings once re-hired. If their weekly earnings fall below the $495 cap, they can still qualify for benefits under the PUA. If they are re-hired and still qualify for the PUA benefit, they are eligible for the $600 benefit under the FPUC program.
Q: Will employees who work two jobs, who were furloughed from one and have reduced hours from the other be eligible for PUA benefits? How will their eligible benefits be calculated?
A: It doesn’t necessarily matter how many jobs you have; it really comes down to your weekly income. As long as a claimant’s total weekly earnings from all jobs fall below the $495 cap, they can qualify for benefits under the PUA program.
Q: The Director of GDOL has mentioned the maximum anyone can make off of PUA and FPUC is $25,000. Is this income taxable?
A: Yes, the unemployment benefits are taxable. I believe in the application process you will be able to choose to deduct the taxes automatically, or you can deal with when you file your taxes.
Q: Will claimants still be eligible to qualify for the PUA program in the event that the Governor declares that the island is in Pandemic Condition of Readiness 3 (PCOR3) or the public health emergency declaration is lifted?
A: Yes. Since the qualifying period is through December 31, 2020, claimants who are to be laid off in November 2020 could still qualify for benefits under the PUA program. Even employees who were laid off, re-hired, and then lost that same job due to COVID-19 could still be eligible for benefits under the PUA program.
Q: Is GDOL going to stand up a processing center for unemployment assistance?
A: Yes, we will. We are currently in the process of setting up a center that complies with the social distancing mandates. We are also hoping to set stations up at mayors offices; that was a part of our budget request. We will definitely have a center where people can call in, where people can come by appointment, and they can get the help that they need.
Q: How many employees are GDOL looking to hire to staff the processing center and assist residents applying for unemployment benefits?
A: We are looking at about 50 people. GovGuam employees will be detailed, and we will also bring temporary employees on board to help with the workload.
Q: How will the Department of Labor assist unemployed individuals with language barriers to accurately complete their applications?
A: We will have employees available to help individuals with language barriers and will utilize the same protocols to achieve cultural competency as with our other employment programs.
Q: The budget request for PUA for Guam was $924 million. The amount announced as approved is $276 million. Is this lower amount an initial deposit, or does it represent the total amount Guam has available for these programs?
A: The budget request of $924 million was approved. The lower amount is the first allotment. As that draws down, Guam will get another allotment. If we go over our approved budget, the funding for this program is not supposed to run out, so we will be able to get the money needed.
Q: How many businesses have already registered with GDOL? Is there an active outreach to employers that have not yet signed up?
A: As of 3:30 a.m., there have been 744 employers that have registered on hireguam.com. These businesses have submitted information for 12,262 affected employees. We are still pushing to get more employers to input their information. We will be creating a PSA shortly to get the word out so that employers understand that this is what they have to do.
Q: Do self-employed individuals need to register as businesses on hireguam.com?
A: No, they do not. Self-employed individuals will be treated like employees, so they do not need to take the extra step of first registering as employers. When employee applications become available there will be an option to categorize yourself as a self-employed individual, and they will have a specific application to fill out.
Q: When employers register on hireguam.com, do they get an acceptance letter or something that verifies they’re in the system?
A: They have to be validated. When they register, they have to upload a business license to ensure they are indeed a legal company. There is a section on the website where they can scan that document, or email it. After GDOL reviews what has been submitted and validates the business, they can proceed with inputting employee information.
Q: Are employers required to provide employees with a notice or certification of furlough or reduced hours?
A: We certainly encourage employers to provide such notices to their employees to allow for speedy implementation of the unemployment programs. Employees who are having difficulties obtaining documents from their former employer can self-certify their eligibility.
Q: Is there anything that employees can do to encourage their employer to sign up on hireguam.com?
A: Some employees are worried that their employer won’t sign up. They can email GDOL to check if their employer registered, and if not, I would be willing to call the employer. The department's email address for employees in this situation is firstname.lastname@example.org. Employees are also able to self-certify their eligibility if they are having difficulties with their previous employer.
Q: What do affected workers need to bring or input in order to complete their application?
A; The first thing they will need to bring is an ID. It doesn't have to be a passport; it can be a Guam ID, a Guam drivers license, an out of state license. As long as it’s valid and it proves who you are, that’s what we need initially. If they can, get a letter from their employer stating the date they were furloughed or their wages were reduced. If they can’t the employee can self-certify that they qualify for the program.
Q: For people who have limited access to technology like scanners, would a photo of relevant documents, like a layoff notice or check stub be accepted by GDOL?
A: Yes. We are accepting many different forms of these documents because we know that some employers have left the island. We are also allowing employees to self-certify if they are unable to reach their former employer. The federal Department of Labor will also conduct audits to address any fraud that may occur in this program.
Q: After residents complete the application process, how soon will they receive their benefits?
A: As soon as the employee module is up and running, it is designed to be able to get money out right away, especially if the applicants opted for a wire transfer as opposed to a paper check.
Q: What can you tell us about the selection process for the vendor of the online application?
A: The vendor GDOL went with was the original vendor we used to create hireguam.com and our job search engine. They focus on workforce development. The great thing about using the same company is all of these modules talk to each other. When the pandemic dies down or goes away and the economy starts to pick back up again, an employee’s information will seamlessly transition over to the job search site. Now they can look for dislocated worker programs, apprenticeship programs, a new career, or training GDOL offers.