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Hawaii jobless rate tops 10% with 58,000 out of work

Estimated unemployment in Hawaii surged past 10% Wednesday, but extra financial relief for workers laid off or furloughed could be arriving relatively soon.

On Tuesday, 20,041 people filed for unemployment statewide, up from 19,534 Monday.

That raises the tally for most of March to about 58,000 newly unemployed, as droves of companies from hotels and restaurants to airlines and retailers slash staffing because of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly estimated, the unemployment rate was close to 11% Tuesday, up from 2.7% in January, using data for the labor force and those who were already unemployed in recent prior months.

About 8,400 more unemployment claims were filed Wednesday up to mid-afternoon, pushing the estimated unemployment rate to 12.6%

Unemployed workers are entitled to a maximum weekly benefit of $648 for up to six months under the state’s standard unemployment program.

A boost to this benefit appears likely, as Congress on Wednesday was on the brink of passing an emergency stimulus bill that would pay the unemployed an extra $600 a week for four months, making the weekly payment $1,248 during this period.

Eligibility for the federal benefit would date back to Jan. 27.

There is some uncertainty, however, how fast this additional federal unemployment benefit may take to end up in the hands of Hawaii’s unemployed.

The extra benefit wouldn’t be a significant new burden for the Hawaii Department of Labor &Industrial Relations, which would be tasked with distributing the payment and can rather seamlessly add the federal money to existing state benefit distributions.

But DLIR is rather overwhelmed with claims processing, and does not have a good idea how long it will take to pay benefits after a new claim is filed.

Before unemployment claims spiked, it typically took as little as 14 days for a claimant to receive benefit funds deposited into their bank account. DLIR isn’t estimating what the lag time is now.

“Although we are waiting on the details and guidance from our federal partners, we are evaluating our ability to process any additional federal and state benefits, DLIR Director Scott Murakami said in a statement Wednesday.

There also could be a hitch as to when the federal coronavirus aid bill is passed and whether terms change.

According a Wall Street Journal report Wednesday, some in Congress are concerned that total state and federal unemployment compensation could exceed what some workers were earning. But trying to tailor the bill to avoid this could take too much time because unemployment benefits vary by states, the report said.

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz said urgency is critical to distribute emergency federal unemployment benefits.

“We need to get this bill enacted within the next 24 hours,” he said Wednesday afternoon. “There’s no time to waste. People are already suffering enormously. We’re in the middle of an unprecedented wave of unemployment in the state of Hawaii.”

The bill also contains a provision to deliver one-time payments to Americans — $1,200 for an adult with annual income up to $75,000 or $150,000 for married couples, and $500 per child. This benefit, which is unrelated to employment, would taper down for adults earning more, but no benefit would extend to those earning more than $99,000 or $198,000 for married couples.

“This is going to be a tremendous public health challenge,” Schatz said about coronavirus. “But to address it, we’ve basically shut down the economy. Our job is to make sure that people can survive. This (bill) will allow people to ride out the storm.”

The U.S. Senate passed the measure Wednesday. The House is scheduled to vote on it Friday.

Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono said in a statement that the emergency assistance is necessary to provide relief to workers and families who have been affected by the difficult actions that states, including Hawaii, are taking to combat COVID-19 by clamping down on economic activity.

“These expanded unemployment insurance provisions will provide crucial certainty to workers in Hawaii and across the country that they will be able to continue to pay their bills and feed their families,” she said.

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