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Unemployed Puerto Ricans fume as claims pile up in pandemic

Puerto Rico's government opened a drive-up service on Monday to handle applications from thousands of people seeing pandemic unemployment assistance after weeks of delays and confusion over the program aimed largely at self-employed people stung by COVID-19 restrictions.

The U.S. territory's government said it has processed only about 3,000 of of 87,000 requests it has received since the online application platform launched on April 28, and officials have feuded with a technology provider about who is to blame for the delays.

Among those who have tried to apply multiple times online and via phone but received no answer is Olga Cortés, who owns kiosks offereing cellphone service and maintenance.

“This is incredibly frustrating,” she said. “I don’t understand how someone has not made the platform work like it’s supposed to in all this time. We’re in the middle of a crisis. We are people who fulfill all our obligations with the government. Now we need them.”

Puerto Rico Labor Secretary Briseida Torres said the drive-up center in front of the department's headquarters in San Juan would help speed up claims.

“The high volume of cases and inquiries we receive daily has caused a delay in addressing these claims and processing payments,” she said Sunday.

Torres said other drive-up centers might open elsewhere on the island in upcoming days.

Labor Department spokesman Christopher Domenech told The Associated Press that a total of $5.3 million has been distributed so far to those seeking pandemic unemployment assistance, with beneficiaries getting $600 a week or more. He said he did not have data on how many people received payments or when the first payment was made.

The lockdown has hit especially hard in Puerto Rico, whose economy is still reeling from Hurricanes Irma and Maria and a recent string of strong earthquakes, as well as a debt crisis that led the island to declare a sort of bankruptcy. Economists have warned the unemployment rate could reach more than 30% on the island of 3.2 million people that has a more than 40% poverty rate, higher than any U.S. state.