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Friday, September 19, 2014         

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Jobless face new setback

A deadlock in Congress over extending benefits halts unemployment checks for some in isles

By Dan Nakaso

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Unemployed construction worker Emmanuel Borromeo went to the state labor office yesterday, hoping someone could grant him an extension of his expired unemployment benefits.

He's been out of work for 46 weeks -- and won't get any more unemployment checks after Congress this week did not approve another extension of jobless benefits beyond the standard 26 weeks.

Yesterday was the first day that people who otherwise would have received extended unemployment checks went empty-handed.

"It's the only means of supporting myself," said Borromeo, who moved from Kahului to live with his adult son in Hawaii Kai when construction jobs dried up on Maui.

On top of the 26 weeks of regular state unemployment insurance payments, the federal Emergency Unemployment Compensation program had provided up to 47 additional weeks of benefits to jobless Hawaii residents.

But the extension program expired at midnight Tuesday. Democrats and Republicans in Washington are now deadlocked over whether to continue them for the second time this year.

Unless Congress reinstates the pay extension, the U.S. Labor Department estimates about 2 million people will be cut off by Christmas.

At $419.53, Hawaii has the national's highest average weekly unemployment payment. The national average is $302.90 per week.

With a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.4 percent in October, about 10,000 Hawaii residents file for benefits weekly under the EUC program.

Most beneficiaries won't stop receiving their unemployment checks immediately, just when they reach the end of the benefit period they're in.

About 1,600 unemployed Hawaii workers each month will exhaust their standard 26 weeks of unemployment benefits and won't get any more, state Labor Director Pearl Imada Iboshi said.

An additional 2,500 Hawaii residents each month will reach the end of their extended benefits in either Tier 1 (providing an extra 20 weeks of pay) or Tier 2 (14 weeks).

Even with the deadlock in Congress, everyone is allowed to collect benefits through the end of the tier they're currently in, Iboshi said.

People in the third and final tier of 13 weeks of extended benefits are not affected by whatever Congress does because they are nearing the end of their benefits anyway.

Borromeo's time in the first extension tier of 20 weeks ran out last week.

He showed up at the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations' Punchbowl Street headquarters yesterday hoping that somehow he could move into the second tier and keep his unemployment checks coming for another 14 weeks.

If not -- at the age of 59, unemployed and living with his son -- Borromeo just shook his head quietly when asked what Christmas will be like this year.

Newly unemployed tile contractor Chuck DeCordoba, 46, had a one-word description of his Christmas this year.

"Limited," he said.

Many of the unemployed workers at the Labor Department yesterday were unaware of the details behind the stalemate in Washington.

Democrats yesterday offered to extend benefits for a year, with the $56 billion cost financed with borrowed money. Republicans wanted the extension offset with savings from somewhere else in the national budget.

Khomkham Panoke, 33, of Moiliili shrugged yesterday when asked whether she was aware of the fight in Washington that determines the budget for her family of four, which includes two daughters, ages 1 and 14.

"I'm not sure," Panoke said, "but hopefully they'll turn it around."

Panoke was laid off from her job as a supervisor at Martin & MacArthur in February and has been able to find only part-time work.

Even with her husband's job as a restaurant server and Panoke's unemployment benefits and part-time paycheck, she still can't afford to buy her teenager the iPod she wants for Christmas.

"It's definitely not enough," Panoke said. "And it's definitely not a good time with the holidays."

So Panoke hopes to use these difficult times to teach her daughter -- a freshman at McKinley High School -- a valuable lesson for the rest of her life:

"Whatever you get or earn," Panoke said, "save."

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.






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