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Hawaii leaders don’t know how many state workers are getting paid to do nothing

One of Hawaii’s biggest employers — state government — is trying to determine how it can have more workers be productive amid prohibitions on less essential work that can’t be done with social distancing.

But the effort amid the fight to stanch the spread of the new coronavirus is frustrating some state senators who learned Tuesday that executive branch leaders don’t know how many of the roughly 73,000 state workers are getting paid to do nothing instead of being redeployed or perhaps even furloughed.

During a Special Senate Committee on COVID-19 hearing Tuesday, state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole (D, Kailua-Kaneohe) expressed outrage over not being able to have idle workers help the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which lacks enough staff to process an avalanche of unemployment claims on a timely basis as job losses mount.

During the first four weeks of March, 116,916 new unemployment claims were filed in Hawaii.

“We have a DLIR, a Department of Labor, that’s behind on issuing unemployment checks to private citizens who cannot telework and are nonessential and have been laid off, and you’re telling me we cannot requisition the individuals in state government — who are sitting at home because they can’t go into work or teleperform their functions via telework — to help the private citizen taxpayers who are paying their paychecks?” Keohokalole asked.

Keohokalole’s question was directed at Ryker Wada, director of the state Department of Human Resources Development, who said that redeploying state workers is challenging.

Wada told the committee that he doesn’t yet have a breakdown of how many state employees are continuing normal work, how many are working remotely and how many aren’t working but are still on the taxpayer’s payroll.

Wada also said he couldn’t give a timetable for obtaining that information, because it is being compiled by individual state departments that include some with thousands of employees.

“We have been working on this diligently since COVID has taken off,” he said. “We are continuing to work on it.”

The undetermined timetable seemed particularly frustrating for several senators on the committee because they said they asked for the breakdown three weeks ago.

Committee Chairman state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Mililani Mauka-Wahiawa) told Wada that it didn’t seem like there is a plan to redeploy idle state workers.

“It almost seems like you’re waiting it out so you don’t have to do it,” Dela Cruz said.

Wada said repurposing idle state employees, none of whom have been furloughed, could be complicated by collective bargaining rules.

Gov. David Ige on March 5 issued an emergency proclamation that allows him to suspend statutes including one covering collective bargaining. However, Wada said Ige has not executed this suspension that would allow shifting workers into other roles.

Wada said there has been some conceptual thought about redeployments but that getting a count and specific information about what types of jobs idle workers have is the first step.

“I appreciate that this assessment will take place,” said state Sen. Michelle Kidani (D, Mililani-Waikele- Kunia).

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