Politics

Federal unemployment benefits extended for Hurricane Maria victims

Puerto Rico: The Forgotten Island

A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico the island remains in a state of recovery. The official death toll now stands at 2,975, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Narration by Rita Moreno.
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A year after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico the island remains in a state of recovery. The official death toll now stands at 2,975, making Maria one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history. Narration by Rita Moreno.

Unemployment benefits for Hurricane Maria victims were extended by six months as part of a massive bill signed into law by President Donald Trump over the weekend.

Typically, victims of natural disasters who apply for unemployment assistance through FEMA receive six months of benefits, so Hurricane Maria victims who have already applied for federal assistance can apply for extended benefits from 26 weeks to 52 weeks.

“For the residents of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, there’s also an extension of disaster unemployment assistance and believe you me, after those island territories, our fellow U.S. citizens have been hit by the hurricanes that roared through last year, that part of the world, there is still a lot of unemployment,” Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson said in a floor speech last week. “This is certainly going to help for those who lost their jobs, or they were unable to work due to Hurricane Maria, get back on their feet.”

The provision was part of a bill that primarily served to reauthorize Federal Aviation Administration funding for five years, and Nelson was the chief Senate Democratic negotiator on the bill as the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. It also included $1.6 billion in disaster assistance related to Hurricane Florence that made landfall in the Carolinas last month and set minimum standards for airline seats that have been shrinking in size over the past decade.

About 9,000 Puerto Ricans were approved for FEMA-related unemployment benefits after Hurricane Maria, Nelson’s office said. To be eligible for the extended benefits a recipient would need to show that they remained unemployed due to the aftereffects of Maria beyond six months. If a recipient who is now employed was unemployed for a period of time longer than six months after the storm, they can retroactively apply for unemployment benefits.

The provision comes as Nelson and Florida Gov. Rick Scott have made repeated visits to Puerto Rico as part of the campaign for Nelson’s U.S. Senate seat. Scott has visited Puerto Rico eight times since Maria made landfall and has said Nelson hasn’t done enough from Washington for Puerto Rico and the thousands of Puerto Ricans who have relocated to Florida after the storm. Puerto Rican voters in Florida, who are concentrated near Orlando, are considered a key constituency for both parties in the upcoming election. Trump addressed police officers in Orlando as part of an official non-campaign visit on Monday.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently endorsed Nelson over Scott while a host of Republicans from Puerto Rico have endorsed Scott. Both Nelson and Scott are in favor of statehood for Puerto Rico, a top priority for Rosselló but something Congress is unlikely to advance in the near future.

The unemployment benefit is for people who applied for Disaster Unemployment Assistance through FEMA, a different program than unemployment run through the Puerto Rico Department of Labor, which is administered by the territorial government. Unemployment in Puerto Rico has been falling since the hurricane, and the latest figures show the unemployment rate at 8.8 percent as of August, a rate much higher than the national unemployment rate of 3.7 percent as of September.

The FAA bill received overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans after committee leaders agreed to compromises on certain controversial measures, including a plan backed by major airlines to privatize the nation’s air traffic control system that was left out of the final bill.

“There’s a lot to like in this bill, especially if you’re fed up with shrinking airline seats,” Nelson said in a statement. “It also goes to show that when folks in Congress put aside their differences, the public comes out the winner.”

Alex Daugherty, @alextdaugherty, 202-383-6049
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