Bill creates fund for families affected by public health emergencies

Senator Telena Nelson (PNC file photo)

Amid the growing global health emergency surrounding COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, Vice Speaker Telena Cruz Nelson has introduced legislation that will provide a financial safety net for Guam families during dire circumstances.

Nelson on Tuesday introduced Bill No. 313-35, the “Unemployment Benefits Act of 2020,” which intends to create an Unemployment Benefits Fund to provide Guam employees with financial assistance in the event of unemployment under emergency circumstances.

“With the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus worldwide, Guam families are already feeling a sense of vulnerability and realize that, through no fault of their own, their jobs, families and livelihoods are at stake,” said Vice Speaker Telena Cruz Nelson. “It’s important that we take action and let our island community know that we won’t let them fall through the cracks.”

The proposed Unemployment Benefits Fund would use 10 percent of unappropriated or surplus funds from the government of Guam’s fiscal budget and be capped at $5 million dollars. The proposed fund would be separate from the government’s General Fund and any other funds. The director of the Department of Labor would, upon the governor’s declaration of an emergency, initiate the program and use $500,000 from the proposed fund for administrative and personnel purposes.

The unemployment benefits proposed would cover employees affected by a natural or manmade disaster, or public health emergency, that caused the loss of employment or wages. An eligible claimant’s unemployment benefits would be calculated according to their weekly average salary of the previous 90 days. Recipients would receive a minimum of $750 and not more than $1,500 per month. The benefits provided by the proposed fund would only be payable for one year after the effective date of the governor’s declaration of an emergency.

To be eligible for the proposed unemployment benefits, claimants must:

  • Be employed at least 46 of the last 52 weeks prior to the governor declaring an emergency;
  • Apply within 90 days of release from their employer and submit a letter of release from their previous employer to the Department of Labor;
  • Continue to seek employment and submit proof of their attempts at finding employment to the Department of Labor; and
  • Not be entitled to receive unemployment compensation benefits under any state or federal unemployment compensation laws.

Eligible claimants may be disqualified for the proposed unemployment benefits if the claimant:

  • Left work voluntarily without good cause;
  • Was discharged or terminated from employment due to misconduct;
  • Fails without good cause to apply for available work or accept suitable work when offered; and
  • Is an owner-employee who voluntarily left employment.

“In just a few months, we’ve already seen how quickly our tourism industry can be negatively affected, and jobs and opportunities threatened,” Nelson said. “This vulnerability shouldn’t overwhelm our hard working families. Unemployment benefits can go a long way to giving many families the financial safety net they need to survive. No one should be left to worry about how they will be able to feed and support their family should a public health emergency or natural disaster strike. We must prioritize our people.” (press release)