María Del Carmen Rivera Cancel, 46, was living in the town of Añasco and working two jobs before Hurricane Maria virtually destroyed Puerto Rico nearly a year and a half ago.
The public school where she had worked for nearly 10 years as a special education assistant was turned into a shelter to house hurricane survivors for three months and the college where she worked as a night receptionist halted operations for months. So Rivera Cancel fled the devastation from the deadliest U.S.-based natural disaster in a century and moved to Philadelphia in search of a job that would give her a stable income.
But learning how to navigate life in the mainland U.S. while still learning English and lacking a stable home have made it difficult for Rivera Cancel to land a full-time job.
“I’ve always been able to help my family out financially, even by earning minimum wage,” she told NBC News in Spanish. ”But all of the sudden, I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t provide for myself or my family.”
People like Rivera Cancel have three weeks to apply for a newly extended federal disaster unemployment program that could benefit over 10,000 workers and self-employed Puerto Ricans who lost their jobs because of Hurricanes Maria and Irma.
The Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources announced in January that the federal government had extended the U.S. Department of Labor’s Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) program for another 26 weeks — meaning that beneficiaries living on the island or the mainland can qualify for payable benefits for as long as 52 weeks.
Whether they are now employed or not, those who were jobless anytime between September 2017, when Hurricane Maria hit, and September 2018 could potentially receive aid. The deadline to submit an application is March 25.
The DUA extension granted to Puerto Rico is the first time anyone in the U.S. has had access to disaster unemployment benefits for more than 39 weeks.
DUA benefits normally last for 26 weeks after the declaration of a major disaster. There have been only three exceptions: the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, and Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.
“Even then, after Katrina they approved 13 weeks of extension, not 26,” Maurice Emsellem, program director at the National Employment Law Project, said.
But as the March 25 DUA application deadline quickly approaches, advocates helping hurricane survivors in Puerto Rico and the mainland are concerned that most people won’t be able to access the newfound aid.
Vilmar Trinta, spokesperson for the island's Department of Labor and Human Resources, said the agency had received only 307 applications from Jan. 22 to Wednesday, March 5 — even though more than 10,000 Puerto Ricans could be eligible to receive benefits.
Since the extension was announced, organizations that provide legal support to low-income communities and people affected by the hurricanes in Puerto Rico said they noticed that the island's labor department had put little effort into making sure that eligible applicants were made aware of the new unemployment aid and understood the application process.
“The P.R. Labor Department has to ensure that notice of this assistance is amply given so all workers who are eligible can have access, and that a much fairer process is established to apply for the benefits,” Ariadna Godreau-Aubert, executive director of Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, said in a press release. “A just recovery includes helping workers left jobless by the disasters and notifying them that they are eligible for this assistance.”
Trinta said in a statement in Spanish that the island's labor department had published public notices on its main media center page and posted the availability of the extension in its website’s front page, alongside the required forms.
“That was also disseminated through social networks,” said Trinta, who added that the labor department sent letters to the over 20,000 people who had previously applied for DUA benefits before the extension was issued.
Advocates also raised concerns over applicants being required to fill out what they call “excessive paperwork” — referring to documentation already submitted to the agency for previous unemployment insurance or DUA applications in response to the storms — and the limited ways in which the application process can be completed.
In a statement, a U.S. Department of Labor spokesperson said that “applications for DUA can be filed in person, by phone or by mail."
The application package is on the labor department's website and can be downloaded or printed, the spokesperson said, adding, however, that "there is currently no online capability to file a DUA claim.”
For Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, associate counsel with LatinoJustice PRLDEF (the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, a national civil rights organization), the lack of an online application is a major obstacle for Puerto Ricans who could benefit from the extension but were forced to move from the island after the hurricanes.
“Given the number of evacuees and Puerto Ricans who migrated to the U.S. after the hurricane, it’s critical that they be informed of this opportunity to receive this additional assistance as they try to rebuild their lives,” she said in a statement.
To spread the word about the availability of DUA benefits, Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, LatinoJustice PRLDEF and the National Employment Law Project are implementing a bilingual outreach and education campaign.
While these groups are treating March 25 as the fixed deadline, Emsellem said the U.S. Department of Labor granted Puerto Rico broad authority to implement the extended DUA program.
“Puerto Rico could potentially request an extension of the deadline if they want to make sure that the largest number of eligible people apply for the help,” Emsellem said.
The federal guidance granting flexibility to Puerto Rico also clarifies that workers who have reached the end of their regular unemployment insurance, collected the basic 26 weeks of DUA or individuals who had never applied for DUA are eligible for the extended relief. It also authorizes Puerto Rico to waive the requirement that workers provide proof that they were able and available for work.
For Rivera Cancel, who has started taking English classes to better her chances at landing a full-time job, one of the biggest reliefs the aid could give is “a better chance at being able to rent an apartment.”
“In Philadelphia, people normally ask that I make three times the rent," she said. "If I can find a stable place to live, it would make it easier for me to move forward, and I know I will land a job somewhere — because I’m not going to stop looking for one."