Hardship checks coming Jan. 18
When everything is said and done, the Navajo Nation should have approximately $324 million in the Hardship Assistance Fund, and checks should be starting to roll out by Jan. 18 or sooner.
During Tuesday’s Budget and Finance Committee meeting, Controller Pearline Kirk said up to $1,300 for adults and up to $450 for children could be given to successful applicants, who comprise any tribal members impacted by the coronavirus.
The controller’s office has received about 290,000 applications for assistance and, of these, about 9,000 were duplicates. So in essence there were 282,000 and 230,000 are ready to be processed. About 10,000 have CIB or birth date verification issues, and 40,000 have other issues. The controller’s office said it is working on contacting the individuals to try to fix the problems.
“We made a lot of effort to really do our validation and verification process,” said Kirk. “This is the largest hardship assistance program in the Nation. With that come a lot of logistic issues to address.”
In order to increase the size of the hardship pot, the Navajo Nation Council resolved that all funds not encumbered by Nov. 20 would revert to the Hardship Assistance Fund. Items that received dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that weren’t spent include bathroom addition funds with a balance of $1.2 million, water care packages and food allocation with remaining $550,000, along with a budget balance of $3.3 million.
Ten million dollars had been allocated for personal protective equipment and of that there is an open commitment of $1.7 million and $600,000 outstanding budget balance, which will revert. Facilities and cleaning remediation has open commitments at $14,000 and remaining $3.5 million outstanding budget balance, which will revert to the hardship fund.
Broadband projects has $2.9 million from the budget balance that will revert. Cordell Shortey, contracting officer for the Office of Management and Budget, didn’t specify projects that received CARES Act allocations, but he did read out the amounts that were given and how much of it was de-obligated and sent to the Hardship Assistance Program.
He did specify that $18.8 million for special duty pay was de-obligated out of the $21 million that was allocated. Special duty or hazard pay has been a sore subject, a report has been given in previous meetings, for those who have been working on the front lines and are having a hard time getting paid. Some programs and divisions had to use Public Law 93-638 dollars to pay employees since the CARES Act funds weren’t processed in time.
Although some delegates demanded to see how much division directors and program managers were getting in hazard pay, it was revealed that some speaker’s office personnel were paid a lump sum. “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, staff members were required to work demanding hours and be on call in order to fulfill office duties, responsibilities, and obligations,” stated in an August memo to the Controller’s Office obtained by the Navajo Times.
“Staff have worked in the office, remotely, and in the field to assist and provide services to the Council delegates, legislative branch, program directors and other constituents in the service to the Navajo Nation,” stated the memo. Five of speaker’s office staffers received $7,500 each; another five received $5,000 each; and one received $10,000.
Kirk said when it comes to finger pointing and blame, it’s usually directed at her office even though programs and offices were late with paperwork, during a previous meeting as she presented about special duty or hazard pay. Budget and Finance Committee member Amber Crotty asked Kirk for a report on the challenges of using up the remaining $18.8 million of special duty/hazard pay. “There were folks on the ground that earned that pay,” said Crotty. “I want to know the office of the president’s plan to properly pay individuals that worked during that time.”
At the beginning of the CARES Act funding discussion last summer, Crotty had pushed for a website to allow the public to see exactly how the $714 million was being spent. This has yet to happen. “The Council passed and the president signed for OMB to develop a website for transparency,” said Crotty. “That has been the cause of confusion – to not know how in real time this money was being spent and what was some of the challenges.”
But OMB, like many other programs and departments, has been displaced from its office and has been working at the Navajo Nation Museum. Crotty recognized the difficulties that the office has had to endure in order to function, and she asked for a report on how Council can support OMB to get a different building and IT support.
Just last week, delegates suggested subpoenaing OMB Director Dominic Beyal because he wasn’t available to report. The staff of OMB has to be out of the museum at 5 p.m. In figuring out how to distribute the hardship checks, it was suggested by Health, Education and Human Services Committee Vice President Carl Slater to have the checks at a “will-call” location for those who can pick them up in person.
But during this time of COVID-19, that option could be unsafe. Mailing out the checks may also cause some issues, said Kirk. She said the Health Command Operations Center has been asking how the controller’s office will distribute checks.
Kirk said they might send the checks out in waves in order to alleviate the heavy flow of people who have received their federal stimulus checks to Gallup and other border towns recently. “There were a lot of crowds in Gallup,” Kirk said. “I think HCOC is concerned with how we are going to distribute the payments. We have a capacity of printing 25,000 checks per day. Sending checks out will be in waves.”
There has been a lot of rhetoric accusing President Jonathan Nez’s stance of trying to sabotage the Hardship Assistance Program and he said that isn’t the case. “Everyone is asking me right now, ‘Where’s our checks?,’” said Nez. “It’s not me.
The resolution, the way the Council amended it, delegated the responsibility of the hardship fund to the controller. People need to understand if they have questions on the hardship, they should be asking the office of the controller.” Of the money received by the executive branch programs, about 80% has been utilized for projects.
Overall, some 60% to 70% of the Navajo Nation’s $714 million CARES Act allocation has been spent on the intended projects. But with the rest reverting to hardship assistance, it won’t be used to finance much-needed projects waiting to be developed.
“Our programs did an outstanding job with the short amount of time period,” said Nez. “Whatever is remaining, it sounds like it will go into hardship. There are still projects listed. These projects could’ve helped elders, disabled individuals with water, electricity, and permanent projects. “Of course it’s going to help COVID now, but at least they would’ve had water and electricity way into the future,” he said.
Congress recently extended the deadline for spending the CARES Act funds for another year, but the Navajo Nation legislation is already passed and reversion to the Hardship Assistance Fund is underway.