Island Times team

(1st part of the 2-part investigative article on the US pandemic assistance to Palau under the WIOA program)

After a handful of complaints and social media inquiries, the Workforce Investment Opportunity Act) office, a US federal government grant program burst into national attention as early as February 19 last year as two individuals went on radio to scrutinize and question WIOA’s disbursement process.

The WIOA office disburses millions of dollars in assistance from the US CARES program, made possible through the Compact of Free Association agreement between Palau and the United States.

Dubbed as an “important lifeline for Palauans made unemployed by the pandemic,” Palau as citizens of the Freely Associated States (FAS) are eligible for certain unemployment benefits under two US-funded facilities: Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), and the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC).

From this assistance, eligible recipients can receive at least $397 a week for up to 39 weeks through December 31, 2020, under the PUA, and $600 a week for periods beginning on or after 1 April 2020, through 31 July 2020, under the FPUC were given to eligible Palauans.  The CARES programs were extended for a further two periods through the end of FY21.

But while many are happy with the help especially when the amount provided by the US is bigger than most of the salaries given in Palau when employed, the WIOA office was not without criticism and marred with reported favoritism and nepotism.

Ms. Starlla Ngirngotel Anderson, a Palauan resident and Mr. Michael Batutii Glinski an American investor in Palau were the first people to publicly complain how WIOA has been depriving them of financial assistance that as they claim is rightfully theirs.

 “I am here on behalf of my daughter Hannah who applied for this financial help”. Her daughter who is an American citizen, “applied for this help in April” of 2021.

Starlla and her daughter Hannah who work together as receptionists at Melusech Dil beauty shop decided that “although we both can apply, I told my daughter to apply first and we’ll see from there”. “She applied in April of 2020, and as for all the necessary paper works and information needed, the company provided for her, yet the denials continued to come”.

As the denials continued, Starlla decided to accompany her daughter to WIOA office to ask Josephine, WIOA’s Executive director to “why is my daughter denied of this aid?”. Starlla said in the radio show that Director Josephine told her at the time, “Starlla, you are working for the only salon in Palau that is currently open and you are the only salon in Palau that applied for aid at WIOA; salon is not a tourist space”.

In her explanation, Starlla clarified that her workplace “Melusech Dil has a massage parlor and skincare services, and for those; it has no more businesses as we depend on tourists”. She further reported that “our gross income every month is now not enough to support all our employees in fact some employees have already left”.

Following the denial that she and her daughter received from WIOA that day, Starlla went home and wrote a letter to all of WIOA’s board members. “I submitted the letter to most of them as I could not locate all board members”.

Fortunately, as Starlla revealed, one board member whom she did not identify started communicating with WIOA on their behalf. “Even though they told my daughter that she was not eligible for the aid, one week later she received her first financial assistance”

“She only received one check of financial assistance,” said Starlla. She also made known when asked by one of the talk show hosts that she did not receive any document explaining why her daughter is all of a sudden qualified to receive this aid.

To further share her daughter’s situation, “my daughter applied in April since by June we still have not received any response, I went to WIOA office with my daughter. They told my daughter that her paper works were still incomplete. Following the completion of my daughter’s paper works, her documents first got through in July” stated Starlla.

Her daughter Hannah only received one check of financial assistance for October and that was the last of it. Interestingly, there is also still no information to them as to why the financial aid that was awarded to her daughter was discontinued after she received her initial aid.

As early as 2020, Josephine Ulengchong, Director of WIOA, has been notified of the $14 million award, the application of eligibility for the money.

A total of 1,200 people have registered with WIOA for this assistance.

(The article is made possible with support of Pacific Anti-Corruption journalists network.)

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