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  • Writer's pictureBy Johanna Salinas

Awash in cash, but not everyone got to see the money

In late spring and early summer, Guam taxpayers began receiving stimulus checks — courtesy of the federal government. While the stimulus funds under the federal CARES Act has been a blessing to hundreds of Guam residents, many were not able to put savings aside. And many others didn’t get to see a dime from the millions of federal dollars that flooded the island.

Joseph Taitano, a senior at the University of Guam who worked part-time, has not returned to work since the pandemic set in. Yet, he was told he was not eligible for any government assistance. The nuances and apparent inconsistencies in the eligibility requirements under the federal Covid-relief programs render many disqualified.

Taitano worked for a small business. His employer told him he had the option to stop working. “My family is high risk so I decided it would be best not to go back to work since I was part-time employee and wasn’t making much money. I had that agreement with my employer. I spoke with DOL and the woman (I spoke to) told me I was eligible because I was going on a leave of absence. I filed the paperwork. Six months later, a man from DOL called me to say I didn’t qualify.”

The CARES Act’s historic fiscal relief for Americans has been extended to Guamanians. The program provided America’s unemployed with monthly income support and $1,200 checks under the Economic Impact Program, which expired Dec. 31. From April through October, the Guam Department of Revenue and Taxation 82,646 EIP payments, totaling about $145 million — representing 96.7 percent of the total funding Guam received from the U.S. Treasury under the first CARES Act relief program.

For the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Lost Wages Assistance programs, the Guam Department of Labor has paid out over $500 million in financial assistance beginning summer to employees who have been displaced as a result of either cut-hours or business closures.

Guam stands to see a new wave of federal dollars under the $1.4 trillion federal spending measure that includes the extension of Covid-19 relief programs through Dec. 31, 2021. The total cost of the package is $900 billion, making it the second-largest economic stimulus in U.S. history.

But not everyone sees reason to celebrate this news. Some joke that the federal dollars are like a ghost— some see it, others don’t.

Taitano is among the unlucky ones. To make matters more difficult, Taitano does not have much left in his savings. “At the beginning of the year, I was trying to pay off my student loans,” he said. “I only had about $1,000 but I spent it all before the pandemic. This is my last semester of school and I've just been riding it out.”

Leisure spending, naturally, is out of the question for Taitano. "This year, I didn’t have anywhere to go so I didn’t need to worry about gas money,” he said. “My car just became the family car, so my dad took over it.”

Taitano is uncertain about his future after college and hopes the economy gets to land him a job. “I have a couple of leads on some things I want to pursue,” he said.

Norielyn O’Connor, who worked as a teacher’s aide at a charter school, also did not qualify for the stimulus. “I've asked friends about why I didn’t receive a stimulus check. I think maybe because I'm still living with my parents and they claimed me as a dependent on their tax,” she said. “My job around that time wasn’t making enough for me to be considered independent. Some friends were saying I had to work there for a year or more to get a stimulus. A coworker at the same job said she didn’t receive a stimulus, too. We’re about the same age and her parents filed her as dependent.”

O’Connor lives with her parents, which makes it easier for her to save money. “I do help with groceries and paying my own gas,” she said.

Though 2020 has been challenging, O’Connor is hopeful 2021 will be better. She has accepted a job as a teacher at a private school. “I hope I can save more money compared to my old job. I need to think about emergencies and having healthcare.”

A retired educator, who requested anonymity, didn’t receive any cash relief as well, but she makes do with what she has— a vegetable garden. “It’s nice to rely on whatever you’ve planted to cook,” she said. “I have a lot of mongo beans and a bunch of Chaya and also some basil…My husband and I don’t qualify for a lot of the freebies from the government. It's ok, because there are others who are in need.”

College student Angela Camacho has received a relief check, which she spent to feed her family and take care of bills. “Before I even got the stimulus, I had to sell my brand-new MacBook laptop to keep up with my car payment. I wanted to cry, because it was the first ever laptop I bought for myself and I was using it for college. So for my classes now, I bought the cheapest laptop. It's not the best, but it’s enough to get the work done. It's not as fast as my MacBook and I miss it so much.”

Camacho worked as an office clerk in a department store. She has been furloughed and was able to receive PUA checks. “I'm still considered employed, but I qualify for unemployment because I haven’t been working regular full-time hours. It's now just an on-call status,” she said.

With PUA money, she was able to buy her college textbooks. But she also had to share her PUA money with her sister, who she said is “also struggling.”

When the department store where she works closed during the first lockdown, Camacho worked for Grab and Grub delivery service to make ends meet.

“But with school, it was hard to concentrate on studying and work Grab and Grub,” she said. “Once I’m physically drained, my mental state is drained, too.”

Despite the setbacks, Camacho continues to stay grateful and sees this whole year as a learning experience. “One thing I learned was don’t wait until a crisis or a pandemic to get my life in order,” she said.

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