BY BERNADETTE H. CARREON
KOROR, Palau — The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act office, set up as a result of a U.S. federally funded grant program, was “temporarily” closed down on June 25.
Its employees are the subject of an investigation after allegations that the office has not distributed appropriately U.S. COVID relief or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance in Palau that the country received.
In a press release, the Office of the President said on June 25 that the investigation into allegations is taking place due to complaints.
President Surangel S. Whipps Jr. said the investigation is being led by the Office of the Special Prosecutor and the Office of the Public Auditor.
The employees of the office were placed on paid administrative leave pending the “review of their roles in the administration of funds.” The release said the investigation process is ongoing and as such, anyone that is accused is “presumed innocent until proven guilty.”
Whipps also said his office is “cooperating fully with this investigation … and taking every recommended action to secure public funds, records, and programs.”
Staff at the office were also instructed to turn over all their access and passwords to the government.
As a result, the disbursement of PUA checks has been delayed.
According to the office’s website, apart from an office manager and staff, the program also has a board. The Office of the President is issuing a notice that the payments will be held until the Local Workforce Board has re-organized and elected a chairman, but PUA applicants are being urged to continue to submit their weekly reports to remain eligible for payments.
“What we have done is secure these assets and records and we will work with U.S. DOL on the way forward. … We will do our best to issue assistance at the earliest opportunity,” the president said. “But we also need to know that this is not our money; this is U.S. money and they also have the right to tell us that we did something wrong and therefore they will just stop the funding. That also can happen,” Whipps said.
On March 31, 2020, President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. signed the Agreement Implementing the Relief for Workers Affected by Coronavirus Act between Palau and the U.S. Department of Labor. CARES Act funding was extended for Palau in 2021. The funding helped almost 1,600 Palauans who have been unemployed or have their work hours reduced, according to Journal files. Palau also extended relief in 2021 through funding by Palau’s Congress. mbj