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Anger at benefit payment delays

No problem: David Burt, the Premier (File photograph by Akil Simmons)

Hundreds of people forced out of work by the latest Covid-19 lockdown have waited weeks for unemployment benefits from the Government, The Royal Gazette can reveal.

One source, who asked not to be named, wrote to David Burt, the Premier, after a month-long wait for a cheque.

The applicant said in an e-mail sent to Mr Burt last Thursday: “The Ministry of Finance has approved unemployment benefits for individuals put out of work during the last lockdown and have stated that the funds would be in people's bank accounts two weeks ago tomorrow but thus far no payment has been forthcoming.”

The source added that repeated phone calls to the ministry went unanswered.

The source added: “This is ridiculous. Nobody asked for this lockdown and these civil servants are getting paid.

“People are relying on that money to pay bills but are getting the runaround.

“If the money is not to be paid then the public should have been made aware of it so they could perhaps move onto Plan B, but we are being told that it's coming but it never does and now it's like the staff are avoiding people.

“There are many, many people who are being affected by this.”

The source asked Government officials: “Can someone there please bring this to the Premier's attention, if he doesn't already know and let the public know what's going on please?”

A spokeswoman for the Premier told the applicant the complaint would be investigated “immediately”.

The applicant replied to the spokeswoman that they had been advised by a senior finance ministry civil servant that there had been “some kind of mix-up” with payments.

The worker told The Royal Gazette yesterday that the payment had at last come through.

And last night Curtis Dickinson, the Minister of Finance, confirmed that 900 of the almost 4,000 applicants who submitted claims last month had not been paid.

But he insisted that Government was not to blame. Instead, he claimed 300 applicants had not filled out forms correctly.

The remaining 600 applications could not be processed because they had not been verified by employers, he said.

Mr Dickinson said: “The regulations require employer verification. Employees who have not received unemployment benefits should confirm that their employer has received and submitted their application.”

The lockdown, imposed on April 13, came after a massive increase in coronavirus infections.

Anyone who could not work from home was eligible to claim compensation from Government of up to $2,000 a month.

But more than five weeks after the order was made, many temporarily laid-off staff were still waiting for their payouts.

The Royal Gazette has received complaints from other applicants, who said they also still awaited payment.

Another applicant who is still waiting for full payment after being out of work for four weeks, questioned why the system had failed.

The employee, who works in the hospitality industry, said: “I was out of work for more than three months from last March and everything was fine.

“I then had to quarantine for two weeks in December after a colleague tested positive and again, there was no problem.

“But this time around is completely different. I applied shortly after lockdown and so far have received one payment of $497 – and that took three weeks to arrive.

“I’ve neither heard or had anything since, despite repeated e-mails. And don’t bother trying to phone – it’s pointless.”

The delays were said to have started after new procedures for benefits payments were introduced at the Ministry of Finance earlier this year.

The problems were worsened by staff shortages at the ministry.

The Government introduced the payment scheme in March last year after Covid-19 hit the island.

Thousands of people were unable to work for several months after the island experienced its first shutdown.

The initial scheme appeared to run efficiently, and Government was praised for its efforts.

The majority of those affected were able to return to work last July.

But the Ministry of Finance continued to make payments in special cases, such as bar and restaurant staff who had their wages slashed due to strict health regulations.

Anyone forced to quarantine after contracting the coronavirus was also paid compensation for forced time off work.

But the department was swamped with applicants after the last month’s second shutdown.

Mr Dickinson’s response last night came after The Royal Gazette first contacted Government’s department of communications about the problem last Thursday.

Officials were asked how many applications for unemployment benefit had been received by the Ministry of Finance in the previous month, how many applications had been paid out, and if there was a backlog in payments.

They were also quizzed on the reasons for the backlog and if there had been technical problems, procedural changes, or staff shortages.

Mr Burt was asked about the row on Tuesday at a Covid-19 briefing.

He said: “My advice is that persons should contact the Ministry of Finance and they have a team up there that is certainly working.”

* Have you been affected? Email gfinighan@royalgazette.com

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Published May 20, 2021 at 3:10 pm (Updated May 20, 2021 at 3:10 pm)

Anger at benefit payment delays

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