Thomas: ‘Labor Dept. is Puerto Rico’s largest employment agency’
The Puerto Rico Labor Department is the island’s largest employment agency, but generally speaking, that is not something it is known for. For that reason, Labor Secretary-designate Vance Thomas will be placing special emphasis on the service, which last year had a listing of nearly 25,000 jobs available to fill.
During a recent interview, Thomas confirmed the agency will be launching an online job bank application this year so that “people can see the offers that are available,” which can be filled by anybody whose unemployed, not just agency beneficiaries, he said.
“Historically speaking, we’ve offered an employment service that integrates counseling and aptitude tests. For the past few years, the focus has been on unemployment, but the truth is we’re the island’s largest employment agency,” he said.
At present, the Labor Department’s job bank includes about 1,000 employers in different areas, including manufacturing, retail, as well as stateside employers looking for Puerto Rico’s trained professionals, said Sandra Valentín, director of the agency’s unemployment insurance benefits and job security administration.
“We serve 100,000 people a year in our employment division, at 14 offices islandwide,” she said.
Inserting itself in economic development
The attention the Labor Department is looking to put on job creation is part of its goal to directly insert itself in the government’s economic development strategy, something in which it has not been participating as actively as it should, Thomas said.
“We’ve been under the impression that the agency had been very focused on promoting peace among our workers, which is certainly important for economic development, but the Labor Department has instruments that were being used in isolated ways and were not responding to a comprehensive policy,” Thomas said.
As a first step, the Labor Department has been included in the administration’s short-term jobs board, to work with other agencies in assigning incentives available through two funds: Law 52, which feeds from unemployment insurance payments and Law 82, which feeds from disability insurance payments, known as SINOT.
“The agency would receive applications that were evaluated internally, and the funds were not necessarily distributed in accordance to the public policy established by the governor’s economic development team,” Thomas said. “The way the system worked lent itself to whimsy and the possibility of arbitrariness in the allocation of funds.”
Now that the agency is participating in the governor’s board, the Labor Department will have a say in how payroll subsidies will be managed, “and must be assigned based on job creation agreements through Puerto Rico Trade and Export,” he said.
To receive subsidies, would-be recipients must submit a proposal — as the Labor Department has always required — which will be given priority if they come with a promise of jobs, he said.
While he confirmed that Law 52 has had as much as $50 million to distribute, Thomas was unable to say how much is available under Law 82.
Reducing arbitration load
Another agency goal this year is to reduce the 17,000 cases it currently has in arbitration by about 3,000, by consolidating cases that share common issues, Thomas said.
“Having so many cases pending really just prolong labor conflicts, and continue to pile up because new ones keep coming in,” Thomas said. “We’ve begun talks with attorneys and parties involved to see if they agree to such consolidations.”
“We’re basically asking parties to collaborate and put aside those matters that have nothing to do with the merits of the case and to understand that we all have to work together,” he said. “It’s certainly not mandatory, but the potential is there to solve cases in a relatively short time by consolidating.”
Many of the pending cases are related to unfair dismissals, which Thomas said require a greater sense of urgency to resolve.
“We’ve asked labor unions to identify those cases where unfair dismissal is alleged to give them priority,” he said, adding the Labor Department has 22 mediators who handle arbitration cases.