US to help Puerto Ricans who lost jobs after hurricanes

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Ricans who lost their jobs after hurricanes Maria and Irma can start applying for disaster unemployment assistance after the U.S. doubled the 26 weeks of benefits, officials announced Wednesday.

The National Employment Law Project estimates that more 10,000 Puerto Ricans are eligible and that lump-sum payments could total nearly $30 million, with overall individual payments ranging from $2,000 to $3,000.

But legal advocates worry the conditions set by Puerto Rico’s government will make it hard for many to apply, including that workers have to provide the required documents in person and that internet options are not available.

Advocates are trying to reach out to families that qualify but worry they won’t reach many given that more than an estimated 130,000 people fled Puerto Rico after the two major hurricanes hit the Caribbean in September 2017.

Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, with the civil rights organization LatinoJustice PRLDEF, said in a phone interview that the extension is a recognition by the federal government that people affected by the hurricanes still need help.

“Many remain unemployed and are suffering the impact of not having any income,” she said. “We have to continue to look for ways to help them.”

Payments will be issued retroactively to cover weeks affected by the disasters for those who qualify.

The benefits extension also applies to those from the U.S. Virgin Islands who remain jobless.

Hurricane Irma passed near St. John and St. Thomas on Sept. 6, 2017 as a Category 5 storm. Two weeks later, Maria passed south of St. Croix and then hit Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm, causing more than an estimated $100 billion in damage.

The extension of another 26 weeks of benefits surpasses the additional 13 weeks offered to those affected by Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terror attacks, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

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