$2.2 Billion Assigned to Tackle COVID-19 in Puerto Rico
$150 million identified to strengthen the unemployment fund
Omar Marrero, executive director of the Puerto Rico Financial Advisory & Fiscal Agency Authority. >Carlos Rivera Giusti
As thousands of unemployed workers and business owners wait for a response from the Puerto Rico Department of Labor, Gov. Wanda Vázquez detailed how her administration aims to distribute $2.2 billion in federal funds before December 2020.
The plan that Vázquez presented yesterday—which will be made official in an executive order—includes:
—$150 million for private hospitals
—$150 million to improve the follow-up process on COVID-19 patients (contact tracing) and to buy test kits
—$40 million to improve remote work and study
—$350 million in aid for small- and midsize businesses (PyMES by its Spanish acronym)
—$50 million for the tourism industry.
Meanwhile, $485.6 million will be disbursed to the General Fund and the emergency reserve. According to a document released by La Fortaleza, $335 million of those funds will be destined to reimburse the General Fund’s expenses throughout the coronavirus emergency, while “the rest will be an effort to respond to possible changes on how to use [the federal funds].”
Both the governor and Labor Secretary Briseida Torres defended at a press conference the fund disbursement procedure for unemployed workers, despite multiple criticisms and obstacles that the process has prompted.
Vázquez was asked how the government would ensure the distribution of those funds, when the unemployment assistance program for self-employed individuals is being managed manually because the system doesn’t work.
Unemployed Workers a Priority
The governor then insisted on listing the sum of money that has been distributed to unemployed workers.
“The system collapses and it also happens to private [companies]; nobody was prepared for the level of requests like the ones that have been received. What’s important is supplying that aid. Of the 230,000 who have solicited, more than 50 percent is receiving that aid. It has never been enough nor will it be until every Puerto Rican can receive it,” Vázquez responded.
Apart from the unemployment insurance, there are other aid that haven’t been disbursed, such as the allocation for nurses in the private sector.
“We are close to the system being in place so that they can access and fill in the information and receive their incentive,” Vázquez. “In the coming weeks, we hope that the system is ready in the Department of Treasury (Hacienda),” she stressed.
There are $150 million identified to reinforce the unemployment fund and $200 million that will be distributed among self-employed workers with a $1,000 check per individual. That check will be destined to the same group that received the $500 stimulus when the coronavirus emergency was barely beginning on the island.
Torres reiterated that, since March 15, when the first lockdown was enacted, there have been 142,000 people claiming unemployment. Among the pending cases, there are 35,000 who are waiting for the resolution of the denominated “controversial points,” which impede the request. The agency has 500 employees to work on those cases, according to the Labor secretary.
Relief for Hospitals
There were representatives of several private hospital institutions at the press conference, who applauded the governor’s announcements.
The executive director of the Puerto Rico Financial Advisory & Fiscal Agency Authority (Aafaf by its Spanish acronym), Omar Marrero, said that the hospital aid will be used for payrolls, but not necessarily to recruit the hundreds of displaced workers. Hospitals will have access to that money as soon as next week.
“It is definitely expected to be used for payroll. But at the end of the day, these are assists; they are not rescues. There is no way to replace the revenue loss that businesses, including hospitals, have had. This aid is not to cover revenue loss; it is assistance for eligible expenses,” Marrero explained.
Other fund allocations include $5 million for a program for the homeless. Vázquez said that nonprofits that work with these communities can present proposals to use these funds in expenses like protection gear, soaps, masks, and gloves.
In addition, there are $40 million for technological investment and to improve the “telemedicine” program, and another $10 million to cover COVID-19 prevention expenses in jails, where there are no known cases. The Department of Correction and Rehabilitation is supposed to use that money to establish vareas for visits and phone calls.
There are also $350 million to finance up to 50 percent of payrolls of private employers who continued paying their employees during the economic paralysis caused by the COVID-19 emergency measures.
The fund breakdown includes $100 million to buy protection, disinfection, and cleaning equipment and items, which will be distributed by government agencies, hospitals, schools, and courts, among others.
Moreover, municipalities can request funds from a $100 million pot assigned for COVID-19 expenses.