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Hawaii’s unemployment assistance gets a fix

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The state unemployment office closed its front doors to the public, but people continued to show up in an attempt to file for unemployment after unsuccessfully trying to connect online.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The state unemployment office closed its front doors to the public, but people continued to show up in an attempt to file for unemployment after unsuccessfully trying to connect online.

  • BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Christopher Foster said he tried hundreds of times to get online for an application, and when he was unable to connect, he decided to appear at the office in person, only to find the office closed.

    BRUCE ASATO / BASATO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Christopher Foster said he tried hundreds of times to get online for an application, and when he was unable to connect, he decided to appear at the office in person, only to find the office closed.

Hawaii’s partially paralyzed unemployment filing system got a technological shot in the arm Monday that should allow a tsunami of laid-off workers to register for benefits immediately.

Yet it’s still uncertain how long filers will have to wait for unemployment payments to arrive as thousands of residents lose their jobs amid government-ordered or voluntary business shutdowns related to the spread of the new coronavirus.

On Monday the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations made available a new digital form to apply for unemployment benefits on its website.

The online form replaces a prior online application portal on DLIR’s website that often couldn’t be accessed or was crashing during use because of overwhelming demand for more than a week.

The department also said it will backdate applications for those who weren’t able to file online last week, has tripled the size of its staff and established a call center Monday so that people who want to apply by phone can make an appointment to do so.

DLIR Director Scott Murakami said the new digital application form, which can be submitted 24 hours a day, essentially unplugged applications from the agency’s computer system, which wasn’t set up to handle such an unprecedented volume of online activity.

“It dramatically improves our efficiency,” he said.

With the new arrangement, data from application forms will be electronically transferred into DLIR’s computer system by a staff that grew to 43 Monday from 14 Thursday by shifting workers from other parts of the agency.

Still, Murakami said he couldn’t reasonably estimate how long it might take for claims to be processed and to deposit benefit proceeds into the bank accounts of filers.

“We’re living in uncertain times,” he said. “We’ve never seen this level of unemployment claims. We got kicked in the teeth on Thursday and Friday, but we will do everything we can to be resilient in the future. We’re doing everything we can to protect claimants and the people of Hawaii.”

Recently, the time between filing a claim and receiving benefits had been as little as 14 days, and Gov. David Ige waived a one-week waiting period to qualify for benefit payments after a layoff.

But that was before the surge in applications, all of which have to be filed remotely since DLIR closed its Oahu office Thursday and four neighbor island offices Friday over concerns of coronavirus transmission.

Widespread problems for people trying to file claims online and by phone became apparent Wednesday to DLIR, though people reported difficulties earlier as a growing legion of newly unemployed began trying to seek benefits.

Mike Howze, a Waianae resident who lost his restaurant job eight days ago, said he tried to file an online unemployment claim 30 to 40 times since being laid off but hadn’t gotten into the system prior to the online application change Monday.

“It’s a pretty crappy situation we’re all in,” he said. “I know I’m not the only one.”

Howze and others who had trouble filing claims online said they were perplexed why DLIR limited the hours for filing from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on weekends.

DLIR spokesman William Kunstman said the limited hours were because the state’s mainframe system is online only during those times.

“Everybody’s up at 6:30 trying to get in,” Howze said.

Murakami estimated that the prior online system could handle only 100 applicants per hour. Too many people trying to get on the system resulted in rejections, and in some cases the system crashed and wiped out unfinished applications.

Murakami said DLIR added extra servers to the system Saturday, which allowed for higher application volume but didn’t stop the crashes.

There were 4,996 first-time claims filed Sunday, up from 3,914 on Saturday, 1,679 on Friday and 1,117 on Thursday.

By comparison, new claims during the entire last week of February totaled 639.

The ranks of unemployed are expected to keep mounting with impending shutdowns or near shutdowns by airlines, hotels and other industries amid expanding state and county orders restricting tourism along with work not deemed essential.

Jason Cohn, operator of Hawaii Forest & Trail and Kohala Zipline, with operations on Hawaii island and Oahu, shut his businesses, which affected about 80 employees and his own job.

After nearly a week of trying to apply for unemployment online and by phone, Cohn visited DLIR’s Kona district office Monday after the agency shared plans to leave printed forms outside along with a locked box to deposit completed printed forms.

Cohn planned to pick up forms to share with all his employees, but he said there were no forms for new applications.

“It’s just frustrating,” he said, adding that he asked his employees how many of them succeeded applying online and heard back that only two had.

Cohn said another employee went to DLIR’s Hilo office and was greeted by a sign that said no forms were available and to register online.

Murakami apologized for the failed plan to provide written forms and said the new digital application form is the most efficient way to receive benefits.

The application is at huiclaims.hawaii.gov/# under a banner titled “For new claims, please complete this form.”

A link to start the application process was still on DLIR’s website Monday but is slated to be redirected to the digital application.

NEW HAWAII ONLINE UNEMPLOYMENT CLAIM FORMS AT

bit.ly/2QFt1C6

Click on green banner for new claims.

UNEMPLOYMENT CALL CENTER

To make a phone application appointment: 762-5752

To reset a claim case password: 762-5751

Open 7:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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