Palau’s unemployment benefits during the pandemic marred with allegations of fraud as accused still waits for formal charges

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By Island Times Team

(First of the two-part investigative article on the US pandemic assistance to Palau under the WIOA programme)

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

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

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

From this assistance, eligible recipients can receive at least US$397 a week for up to 39 weeks through 31 December, 2020, under the PUA, and US$600 a week for periods beginning on or after 01 April 2020, through 31 July 2020, under the FPUC were given to eligible Palauans. The CARES programmes 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 U.S is bigger than most average salaries in Palau, the WIOA office was not without criticism and marred with reported favouritism and nepotism.

Starlla Ngirngotel Anderson, a Palauan resident and Michael Batutii Glinski an American investor in Palau were the first to publicly complain about how WIOA deprived them of financial assistance which they claim was 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 assistance in April 2021.”

Starlla and her daughter Hannah who work 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 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 parlour 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 from WIOA, Starlla wrote a letter to WIOA 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 revealed on the radio talk show that she did not receive any document explaining why her daughter is all of a sudden qualified to receive financial assistance.

Her daughter Hannah only received one check for October and that was the last of it. Interestingly, there is also still no explanation from WIOA on why the financial aid was discontinued after she received her first payment.

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

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

(Research assistance was provided by the Pacific Anti-Corruption Journalists’ Network (PACJN)

SOURCE: ISLAND TIMES/PACNEWS