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Deadline for Puerto Rico unemployment aid is extended after only a quarter of those eligible apply

About 2,400 applications for unemployment aid have been approved since January, even though over 10,000 Puerto Ricans could benefit from the assistance.
Residents inside the Plaza del Mercado in the Rio Piedras area of San Juan on April 17.
Residents inside the Plaza del Mercado in the Rio Piedras area of San Juan on April 17.Carlos Giusti / AP file

People in Puerto Rico have a little less than a month to apply for a newly extended federal disaster unemployment program that could benefit thousands of workers and self-employed Puerto Ricans who lost their jobs because of Hurricane Maria.

The Puerto Rico Department of Labor and Human Resources announced on Thursday that the deadline to apply to the Disaster Unemployment Assistance (DUA) federal program was extended until June 24 “so that more people could have the opportunity to apply.”

Even though DUA benefits normally last for 26 weeks after the declaration of a major disaster, those affected by the hurricane in Puerto Rico can receive payable benefits for up to 52 weeks, thanks to a program extension granted in January.

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.

“It’s important that Puerto Ricans who qualify for these benefits — wherever they may currently be — apply immediately. Any and all available aid remains critical to help Puerto Ricans with their ongoing recovery,” said Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said in a statement.

Workers who were unemployed between Sept. 20, 2017, and Sept. 22, 2018, are eligible to collect a retroactive, lump-sum payment of unemployment aid without regard to whether they are currently employed. People don’t have to currently reside in Puerto Rico to apply.

Both people who exhausted their regular unemployment insurance or their standard 26 weeks of DUA aid and individuals who previously failed to apply for the program for legitimate reasons could benefit from the extension.

Briseida Torres Reyes, secretary of Puerto Rico’s Department of Labor, said in a statement that “approximately 2,400 applications have been approved” since January, even though over 10,000 Puerto Ricans could benefit from the program.

“Now is the time for the Puerto Rico Labor Department to seriously boost the numbers of people applying,” said Maurice Emsellem, program director at the National Employment Law Project, “to ensure that all Puerto Ricans who qualify can access the federal program.”

Emsellem’s organization, alongside other groups, are now calling on the Puerto Rican Department of Labor to publicize the program in a bigger way and streamline the application process to make sure that more apply to receive the unprecedented benefit.

The organization suggested the government agency to eliminate paperwork that’s not specifically required by the U.S. Department of Labor, including employer verification letters, and to actively engage with community organizations in the island and in states where families relocated after the hurricane, among other recommendations, in order to maximize access to an estimated $30 million in DUA benefits for qualified workers.