Credit Unions in Puerto Rico Tackle Covid-19 Crisis

Address Troubled Customers Case-by-Case; Urge Use of Drive-Thru, Phone and Online Services

SAN JUAN – Credit unions in Puerto Rico are taking measures to protect their employees and address the problems of members and customers who have become unemployed or have seen their income cut due to the effects of the Covid-19 outbreak.

The Arecibo Savings & Loan Credit Union, or CooPACA, the largest credit union on the island with 14 branches, is evaluating requests for moratoriums on mortgage, personal and auto loan payments on a case-by-case basis, said CooPACA President William Méndez Pagán.

“We are getting a lot of calls from credit union members and customers who need help,” he told Caribbean Business. “We are receiving evidence from members who have become unemployed, have been put on [unpaid] vacation leave or have seen their income interrupted due to this situation we are in. We are seeing these cases individually so these members’ credit is not affected. Given that we don’t know how extensive this is, we are going to request evidence from members to determine which type of moratorium on loan payments we will approve in each case.”

Méndez Pagán said CooPACA has approved moratoriums and payment plans—an option offered so “loan maturities are not affected.” He said 37 loan moratoriums had been approved between Wednesday and closing of business Friday, mostly for consumer loans. The process for mortgage and commercial loans is more “sophisticated, involving more documentation and loan contracts,” he added.

The CooPACA executive urged members and customers needing guidance and help with situations affecting their finances to log onto the credit union’s website, www.coopaca.com, or call (787) 815-7615 and (787) 878-2095, extension 7211. They may also email cobros@coopaca.com.

After Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, CooPACA approved 16,000 automatic moratoriums on personal loan payments, he said.

On the other hand, Méndez Pagán said many members have continued to pay their loans, adding that these payments are more than what he expected.

“Many of our members are very responsible with their finances,” he said, noting that the credit union is receiving inquiries on how payments can be made online.

A company was hired to disinfect the branches before opening every morning at 8:30 a.m., Méndez Pagán said. The branches are closing at 2 p.m., Monday through Friday. On Saturdays, the branches open from 8 a.m. to noon. The Barceloneta and Trujillo Alto branches remain closed. There is the possibility of reducing branch business hours further to minimize the risk, he said.

“We are monitoring the situation on a daily basis. If, God forbid, things get complicated, we have employees who are ready to work remotely,” he said. “There are employees providing nonessential services who were sent home with vacation pay.”

Méndez Pagán said the number of members and customers visiting CooPACA branches has fallen sharply. The credit union is limiting the number of people who enter its branches at one time and are asked before entering what kind of transactions they wish to carry out, he said, adding that Autocoop drive-thru window traffic has increased markedly.

The executive urged members and customers to use the credit union’s online services, including CooPACA Móvil and the new uOpen online site for personal loan applications. The Telepago Voice Bank is also available.

The credit union’s online business has risen 30 percent since the beginning of the crisis, Méndez Pagán said. “And, definitely, that’s going to continue to increase.”

He added: “The message driven by the government is hitting home. We need to avoid the spread of this terrible virus.”

Eddie W. Alicea, president of the Corozal-based Sagrada Familia Cooperative Credit Union, said there has been an increase in the number of credit union members and customers making requests for information on moratoriums at the institution’s website, www.sagradacoop.com, and Facebook page. He stressed that the moratoriums are not automatic and requests are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“We have to document the particular circumstances and difficulties faced by members due to the governor’s executive order before any moratoriums can be approved,” he said.

Alicea said the credit union approved more than 1,000 moratoriums for personal, mortgage and auto loans after Hurricane Maria.

The Sagrada Familia branches are opening from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The credit union has five locations: Corozal, Naranjito, the Santa Juanita neighborhood of Bayamón, the Reparto Metropolitano neighborhood of San Juan and Guaynabo.

“Branches continue to open for deposits, withdrawals and payments,” he said, adding that only three customers are being allowed into a branch at any one time.  

Overall visits to the branches have become “sporadic,” while the credit union’s online traffic has increased, said Alicea, who urged customers to carry out transactions by using the branches’ Servicarro drive-thru window service or by accessing the institution’s online services.

Members can use the Sharenet ATM network—used by Walgreens and some gasoline stations—without fees, he said. Members from different credit unions can also carry out transactions on Coop 24 ATMs without fees.

“More people are using the credit union’s website to communicate with us than through telephone calls,” he said, adding that the credit union has online banking and credit services, mobile banking, as well as an ATM network and ATH Movil.

Alicea said a safe “social distance” space has been established between credit union employees at branch and office spaces.

“We are taking all precautions, providing gloves and sanitizer to employees and increasing hours and cleaning and maintenance of the branch offices,” he said. “Door knobs are cleaned several times a day.”

Alicea did not rule out having employees work from their homes if the crisis worsens.

“We are preparing for the possibility that the situation could get worse and management personnel work from their homes,” he said. “We have the technology and we are acquiring laptops for employees who lack them.”

Pedro Roldán Román, executive president of the Cooperatives Supervision & Insurance Corp. (Cossec by its Spanish acronym), issued a press release this week saying the agency authorized credit unions to offer moratoriums on loan payments to members, including businesses, whose income has been impacted by the curfew/lockdown order stipulated in the state of emergency declared by Gov. Wanda Vázquez to curb the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

“The terms of the program should be established by the credit union. Each case should be evaluated in an individual matter,” he said in the statement. “This program should be adopted by credit unions voluntarily and according to the best practices of healthy administration.”

The Cossec chief said that credit unions should document the losses or interruption in income suffered by credit union members who apply for a moratorium and follow up on moratorium beneficiaries.  

He said credit unions that need more information on the matter should contact Juan J. Aulet Robles, Cossec vice president of technical support and supervision, at (787) 622-0957, or via email, at jaulet@cossec.pr.gov.

Cossec ensures credit union shares and deposits up to $250,000. Taken together, the island’s 113 credit unions constitute the third largest financial institution in Puerto Rico after Banco Popular de Puerto Rico (Popular Inc.) and FirstBank when considering their assets, deposits and loans.

Credit unions, as well as other cooperative enterprises, are non-profit institutions whose member clients own shares and elect their management. They also serve nonmember customers.