Puerto Rico labor secretary resigns amid unemployment crisis

U.S. & World

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Puerto Rico’s labor secretary resigned on Tuesday as tens of thousands of unemployed workers have yet to receive financial aid promised months ago amid a pandemic that has deepened the U.S. territory’s economic crisis.

The anger directed at former secretary Briseida Torres and her agency has boiled over at Puerto Rico’s main convention center, where one person was recently injured in a stabbing and several government employees have been threatened as hundreds of unemployed workers wait in line every day seeking help.

Some have been told to arrive in the pre-dawn hours and await their turn, but they fear being arrested for violating a coronavirus curfew that bars everyone except essential workers from being outside from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m.

“I am so frustrated,” said 28-year-old Luis Alvarado, who lost his job as a bartender and waiter the day after the governor announced a lockdown in mid-March that lasted two months.

He has not received any local unemployment benefits despite standing in line for several hours on two different days and waiting nearly two hours for someone to pick up the phone only to be told they couldn’t help him.

“I have called. I have sent emails. I wrote text messages. I never received a response,” Alvarado said, adding that someone who helped him at the convention center last week told him to wait two to three weeks for a response.

Before stepping down, Torres announced that the Department of Labor would soon launch a system based on appointments to avoid the ongoing chaos. Her resignation comes three weeks after the government opened a drive-up service at the department’s headquarters to handle applications from self-employed workers seeking pandemic unemployment assistance. However, officials were soon overwhelmed and moved the drive-up service to the main convention center.

At the time, the government had processed only about 3,000 of 87,000 requests received since launching an online application platform on April 28 as it feuded with a technology provider about who was to blame for the delays.

Torres announced she was resigning for personal reasons shortly after meeting privately with Gov. Wanda Vázquez amid growing criticism of how her administration has handled the distribution of federal aid related to the pandemic. Javier Villa, a spokesman for the island’s Department of Labor, told reporters that he was not privy to what was discussed in the meeting. He did not return a message for comment seeking updated statistics of how many people have applied for benefits and how many have received them.

Torres said her agency has distributed more than $1.2 billion and helped more than 250,000 people since the beginning of April despite “multiple technological challenges and a lack of specialized personnel.”

Officials announced Carlos Rivera would be the new labor secretary, with Public Affairs Secretary Osvaldo Soto saying that he believes the new leadership would produce an immediate change.

“We have to move ahead,” he said. “The people who are requesting unemployment benefits need an immediate response and zero excuses.”

The delay in the distribution of benefits comes as economists warn the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people could see its unemployment rate soar past 30%. U.S. Census data show the poverty rate is already past 40%, higher than any U.S. state.

Jenniffer González, the island’s representative to Congress, tweeted that it was unacceptable that more than three months have passed and Puerto Ricans had yet to receive federal unemployment benefits.

“ZERO sense of urgency, while the lives of many people fall apart,” she wrote.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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