Under the United States CARES ACT, Palau became eligible for financial grant assistance in the form of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC). Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) applied for the grant and received notice of award of $19 million and was issued $14 million.
To date, nearly $9 million has been disbursed to over 1,000 eligible recipients. Since the fund disbursement began, there have been continuing concerns and questions raised regarding the policies over disbursements of the grant.
Island Times interview WIOA Director Josephine Ulengchong to obtain some of the answers to the questions raised.
Q. Is there a difference between the application of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Palau with the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in the United States under the CARES Act?
A. Yes. In the United States, it has other unemployment insurance benefits that people benefit from. Only if they do not have those, can they benefit from this Pandemic Unemployment Insurance. What we are getting is Pandemic Unemployment Insurance but because Palau does not have employment insurance, we call it, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.
Q. What is the difference between this and say the $1,200 that US citizens and Palau residents in the US received as result of the pandemic.?
A. Palau’s grant comes under the Department of Labor whereas that type of assistance in the United States comes from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the stimulus grant. These are two different agencies with different governing laws.
Q. Does Palau government have any say on how this grant is applied and/or disbursed?
A. No. The only part Palau has is the taxing of the money. Under PUA and FPUC, this fund may be taxed. The grant allows for tax deductions and the implementation plan submitted for this grant stated that it will be taxed.
Q. Are there other jurisdictions taxing this beside Palau?
A. Yes, Guam is charging 10% on it. Only the stimulus grant is not tax and that is under the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and based on tax filings and is different from US Unemployment Insurance which is under the Department of Labor.
A. When you combine Social Security contributions, Health Insurance and the income tax calculations, Palau charges around the same amount.
Q. Some say that the funds should be distributed to everyone because everyone is affected one way or another by COVID? Why is it not done so?
A. It can not be distributed to just everyone. There are criteria and requirements including having to meet at least one of the eleven (11) COVID-related reasons under the Pandemic Unemployment Guideline, which is available on the WIOA website. In all the initial applications, at least one of the 11 COVID-related reasons must be ticked off for you to qualify. For example, if you lost your job because you were fired or you got sick and was hospitalized, you won’t qualify because they are not COVId-related reasons based on the regulations.
Q. Can you modify the eligibility requirements to fit Palau?
A. No. We have specified weekly benefit amount. PUA applies Hawaii’s Employment and Security Act on Palau such as the earning’ disregard formula to Palau’s benefit calculations. These were all part of the training we went through in order to administer and disburse the funds. We cannot even start entertaining applications until we had completed this training.
A. We have to follow every single regulation spelled out by the PUA in processing and disbursing this grant. The only thing we can do is if we notice irregularities in the application which indicate possible fraud, then we can stop the process and conduct investigation of that particular person. We find that this is one thing that makes people upset, when we have to follow through the application and investigate and ask questions. People gets upset with this.
A. Everything we do require documentation. We can not disburse anything without documentation.
Q. Will this grant be audited after this?
A. We are in fact currently under desk audit by Office of Inspector General (OIG) and US DOL. Because the grant is huge and was awarded quickly and disbursed quickly, the Office of Inspector General is really looking at US DOL closely on how this grant is administered. I must submit no later than Monday 3 binders of reports. And they require documentation for everything.
Another thing, everything we do, we do knowing that we will be audited and not just this grant only but hundreds of thousands worth of other grants under our program will be jeopardized if we don’t follow the requirements and fail the audit.
Q. On another matter, some people are complaining that they received large amounts in the first payment and now they are receiving only small amounts. Why is that?
Q. The reason most people received large amounts in the first disbursement was because the payments were retroactive to February. Some people were eligible for FPUC of $600 plus PUA which was $300 a week, which is $900 a week. Retroact this amount five months back and it will be a large payment. The first checks we issued in June, covered about 5 months. The second payment only covered 2 months after their last payment and therefore, much smaller. Also some people applied late and received small amounts than they expected, some were so because of the date on their applications. For example, someone signed an application dated September. September, there was no longer FPUC and the application only covered that date they put on the application. We cannot alter your form for you.
Another issue, in your application and let say, your hours were reduced or cut, have to be supported by your employer. If you say one thing and your employer say different thing, than documentation needs to be provided to support your claim. There must be documents to support your reduced hours.
Q. Why can’t you hire more people to help you?
A. We can but they need to be trained the same way we were trained. And given the amount of training required and the amount of work that has to be done in the short time, how can we train and work at the same time.? That is why we are just doing the work ourselves. There is no time to train.
Q. One comment on social media alleges that you paid one person $27,000. Did anyone receive an amount this big?
A. Goodness no. We have not paid out anything like that! That is not true!
(Due to space limitation, second part of the interview will be coming out in the next issue of Island times.)

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