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Pay delays for Kauai flood and Kilauea lava duties irk Hawaii Guard members

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    Members of the National Guard take readings on the Big Island of noxious gas in Puna near fissure 8 in Leilani Estates.

The Hawaii National Guard’s largest and longest “state active duty” call-up for Kauai flood and Kilauea lava duty has come with some pay delays that prompted the Guard to create a hotline open seven days a week “to make note of all pay discrepancies and to fix them,” according to an Air Guard official.

Some families have complained that the sometimes lengthy wait for what’s known as “after the fact” pay has put them in a financial bind as bills keep rolling in.

The Hawaii National Guard joint forces headquarters “is working hard to fix any residual pay issues from the beginning of Kauai flood and Paa Mau (Hawaii island) response operations,” Col. Gregory Scrivner, staff director for the Hawaii Air National Guard, said in an internal email Tuesday obtained by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Scrivner noted the hotline (672-1973) and said the Hawaii Guard had “been negotiating with the governor’s office for an exception to state statute” that requires work to be completed before pay processing begins.

Gov. David Ige signed a proclamation Friday extending disaster emergency relief for lava-ravaged Puna to Oct. 2, and enacted a provision allowing state agencies “to pay, as expeditiously as possible,” members of the Guard deployed to the Big Island.

In some cases a Guard member on lava duty might have been there for 10 days and extended 20 more — and then faced a two- to three-week processing time on top of that to get the first check on paper — not direct deposit.

An antiquated pay system over 25 years old and a lack of Guard member understanding of state active duty, or SAD, after-the-fact pay, are contributors, but the Hawaii Guard also admits it made mistakes in making timely payments, officials said.

Maj. Jeff Hickman, a Hawaii Guard spokesman, said the change implemented by Ige allows pay to be processed after each week worked.

“So if they are on orders for three weeks, on their third week they’ll start to get their first week of pay, and every week after that they’ll get paid,” Hickman said.

Chief Warrant Officer Shirley Bryant, who works in the Guard’s personnel section, said in a July 28 internal email that for the week ending July 7, the Guard was still awaiting 114 checks for that pay period.

Hickman said fewer than 15 Hawaii Guard members had to wait over a month before getting their first paycheck.

Housing allowance is another matter. All activated Guard members get a minimal housing allowance with their pay, but those who serve at least 30 days consecutively are eligible for a higher housing allowance intended to cover a mortgage or rent, Hickman said.

About 180 Guard members so far are expected to get that higher housing allowance, Hickman said, but none has been paid out yet due to the need to manually enter names, ranks and family information.

That housing allowance “is being worked right now,” Hickman said. Additional staff was brought in full time to help manage the pay problems, he said.

About 600 Hawaii Army and Air Guard personnel have served on the Big Island since May 4 after lava started flowing through Puna, Hickman said. Some were detailed for as short as two days, while others have been on duty the entire time. Approximately 100 are there now, he said.

About 150 Guard members were deployed to Kauai, with about six remaining to escort people in and out of flood areas.

Maui state Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran (D, Wailuku-­Waihee-Kahului) said he was contacted by spouses and other relatives of deployed Guard members who “are the ones who’ve felt the impact of the delays the deployed Guardsmen have experienced in receiving pay on a timely basis.”

On their behalf, he checked with the state Department of Defense, the Department of Accounting and General Services and the governor’s office, he said.

Two Guard family members also contacted the Star-Advertiser about delayed pay but didn’t want to give their names — fearing retribution would be meted out to the citizen soldiers for speaking out.

Rusty Spray, who works in finance for the Guard, provided a breakdown to Keith-Agaran for state active-duty pay that includes a certificate of performance after the duty — and then up to several weeks of processing, including multiple trips via messenger between state DOD and DAGS to deliver vouchers and paper checks.

The state in late 2016 launched HawaiiPay to modernize a payroll system that was over 50 years old and includes managing direct deposits. Hickman said 400 full-time state DOD employees will be enrolled first, and when that’s done, “they are going to come back to us (and say), ‘What do you want to do for your soldiers and airmen? How are we going to enroll them?’ But there’s no date on that yet.”

Spray noted to Keith-­Agaran that “federal and state active-duty deployment pay schedules are not the same, and some may not understand” the after-the-fact pay system.

Hickman said that fact was explained in briefings to deploying Guard members, but it may have been “skimmed over” by some.

There were more pay issues in the beginning “when we were getting volunteers from all these different units” for lava duty, Hickman said. “But the last 45 days we’ve had big chunks come in, like 60 to 70 people coming in at the same time and leaving at the same time,” which makes it “way easier to track pay, way easier to manage.”

The ongoing need for personnel on the Big Island comes at a time when the Guard also is deploying about 1,000 members this year and next to the Middle East and Europe on federal duty.

“The weekly paychecks, the hotline, the specific staff that’s been brought on to track all this — lots of improvements have been made,” Hickman said. “It also needs to be said this was the longest (state active duty) mission pretty much in the history of the Hawaii Guard, and it’s ongoing.”

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