Labor Secretary Torres resigns amid mounting complaints over her work
Gov appoints La Fortaleza labor liaison, attorney Carlos Rivera Santiago to the post
SAN JUAN – Amid growing dissatisfaction with her handling of surging Covid-19 unemployment claims, Puerto Rico Labor & Human Resources Department (PRLHD) Secretary Briseida Torres Reyes handed in her resignation on Tuesday.
Although Torres’s resignation was to be effective next Monday, Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced immediately appointed attorney Carlos Rivera Santiago as designated Labor & Human Resources secretary and sent his name to the Puerto Rico Senate for confirmation.
Javier Villa, Torres’s press secretary, announced her resignation Tuesday afternoon after the outgoing Labor secretary concluded a meeting with Vázquez at the La Fortaleza governor’s mansion, to which Torres had been summoned earlier in the day. He said that Torres, who did not address reporters, had quit due to “personal situations that she has been facing in the past few hours,” but did not give details.
In a press release issued after the meeting, Torres reportedly said that “a situation has come up in the last 24 hours I cannot postpone,” and to which she claimed she had to dedicate “a great deal of my energy, which limits my dedicating to PRLHD the time it requires and deserves.”
In fact, during a later press conference in which La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Antonio Luis Pabón Batlle announced Rivera’s appointment, La Fortaleza Public Affairs Secretary Osvaldo Soto said the situation involving the outgoing Labor secretary had been “unsustainable,” hinting that the governor had asked for her resignation after expressing her dissatisfaction with Torres’s work at the agency. He also criticized Torres for avoiding the press, saying “there is no excuse for a secretary not to be constantly addressing the media.”
“This situation [involving] the unemployed was unacceptable for the governor given the situation that occurred in recent days,” Soto said, noting that Vázquez summoned Torres to the meeting in La Fortaleza after receiving a growing number of complaints involving her handling of unemployment claims. “Moreover, I should say that [Torres] was given all the resources necessary to act in conformity to what the governor had requested from her. Given that this did not occur, we know the results in the afternoon of today [Tuesday].”
Torres reportedly had announced Tuesday morning the start of an appointment system to address the needs of people who have problems with their unemployment claims. The agency has been offering services to claimants through “drive-in” centers located throughout the island, given that Labor offices have remained closed due to the Covid-19 emergency.
One of these centers was moved last week to the Puerto Rico Convention Center in Miramar so that the agency could receive a greater number of claimants in person. However, postings in social media on Monday showed dozens of people in cramped lines waiting to be called by Labor officials posted on the second level of the venue. One posting said that despite officials giving out some 300 turns for people waiting there as early as 2 a.m., the number of people that had been called by 2 p.m. did not surpass 50.
While people laid off or furloughed in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic emergency have been urged to file online claims, many claimants have had problems applying for and receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) payments. PUA provides additional unemployment compensation to people who do not qualify for regular unemployment because they are self-employed, are contractors, homecare professionals, or have exhausted regular unemployment benefits amid the novel coronavirus epidemic.
Last month, Torres reached an agreement with transaction processor Evertec Inc. to integrate the PUA platform with the agency’s Automated Benefits System (Saben by its Spanish acronym) in order to eliminate platform breakdowns that had been holding up thousands of unemployment claims. She later claimed the move hastened such payments, including retroactive ones, to beneficiaries.
Other claimants were also having problems with the so-called controversial points in the bi-weekly questionnaires beneficiaries must file to receive payments that went unsettled.
Moreover, despite the gradual lifting of lockdown measures since May 1 allowing more businesses to reopen, the number of initial unemployment claims in Puerto Rico surged back up to 13,521 the week ending May 23, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Labor statistics. The federal agency had reported that initial unemployment claims on the island had dropped from a high of 66,555 the week ending April 4 to 10,923 the week ending May 16.
As a result, continued claims increased from 152,823 the week ending May 9, to 194,272 the week ending May 16. Initial jobless claims are how many new people file for unemployment benefits in a week, while continuing claims measure the total number of people workers on unemployment.
Soto said that the system set up by Torres to address the surge in claimants and their problems “did not work.”
“We trust that the designation of Carlos Rivera will produce an immediate change and action to the benefit of all of the people who are waiting for unemployment insurance benefits,” Soto said, calling Torres’s resignation “anomalous” and “unexpected.”
He added: “The resources and the space were given to [Torres]. The people who are waiting for their unemployment payments need an immediate response and no more excuses.”
Pabón said that Torres’s replacement “has the trust of all of us at La Fortaleza.” Rivera had been serving as labor liaison at the executive mansion with the former secretary. Pabón said Deputy Labor Secretary Mabel Santiago would take over the agency until Rivera is confirmed by the Senate.
In her resignation letter, Torres said she had worked this past year “with dedication and care” to offer “with excellence a multiplicity of services” to the public.
“I feel honored to have been able to collaborate with the rights of the working women and to place them as a priority in the execution of public policy, as well as reopening the doors to various labor groups provoking communication channels that are necessary to reach labor peace,” she said in the letter, in which she acknowledged. “Similarly, we continued with efforts that allowed the achievement of historic indicators in terms of the labor market and the decrease of the unemployment rate to the lowest registered in 40 years. The work plans toward these aims had a recognized progress.”
Torres said that despite the “multiple technological challenges and lack of specialized personnel” with the onset of the Covid-19 epidemic crisis in March, the agency was able to disburse more than $1.17 billion to more than 250,000 jobless people since April 1. She said that “after stabilizing the claims systems through our providers,” the agency started “an orderly reopening with an appointment system.”
“We are confident that the new secretary, along with the excellent staff working in the Labor Department, will streamline this process so that citizens can receive this aid as soon as possible,” Vázquez said in a statement after making the appointment.
For his part, Rivera said in a statement that he appreciated “the confidence placed in me by the governor in being able to assume the reins of the Department of Labor. The challenge is great, but I know that with the commitment of employees and my own, we will be able to provide services to our citizens when they need it most. ”
Rivera has served as La Fortaleza labor liaison since August, advising the governor in matters of labor law and labor relations. Prior to his position in La Fortaleza, he served as a special assistant in the Department of Justice, and from January 2017 to April 2019, he was Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the agency. Previously, he was a juvenile attorney and prosecutor. He was also a labor relations researcher in the Public Service Labor Relations Commission from 2000 to 2006.
Rivera earned a bachelor’s degree in labor relations from the Río Piedras campus of the University of Puerto Rico and a Juris Doctor from the Inter American University of Puerto Rico Law School.