The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported total unemployment filings in March of 160,929.
While that number, reflects some claim duplication, it shows the magnitude of what the agency has been dealing with since COVID-19 lockdowns disrupted many facets of the state’s economy.
Though the new coronavirus was already wreaking havoc globally at the start of the year, Hawaii’s unemployment rate for January held steady at 2.7% and nonfarm payroll jobs fell by just 300. But it had all come to a head in March, when Hawaii got its first COVID-19 case.
In reaction, Gov. David Ige issued a stay-in-place order that is expected to disrupt local business operations through at least April. On March 26, Ige ordered a 14-day quarantine for trans-Pacific passengers, which on Wednesday was broadened to include interisland passengers.
Since then, only 1,067 visitors have come into the state. But Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami and Maui Mayor Mike Victorino want to see travel locked down even more. They’ve sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to stop all non-essential travel to Hawaii.
With travel such a big part of Hawaii’s economy, the lockdown has contributed to pay cuts, reduced hours, furloughs and layoffs across the state. The sheer magnitude caused Hawaii’s jobless rate to rise above 10% last week and brought the tally for most of March to about 58,000 newly unemployed.
In mid-March, the filing system for unemployment insurance became so overloaded there was a temporary drop in claims before improvements were made. DLIR’s web portal was unavailable from 6 p.m. Tuesday through at least Wednesday afternoon because its mainframe was processing quarterly information.
“We’ve been getting calls from workers. Some of them say they have been trying every hour of every day,” said Bryant de Venecia, spokesman for the Unite Here Local 5 labor union. “We had one worker who began trying to apply on March 22 and only got in Monday, eight days later. The benefit is supposed to cover from the first day out of work, but timing can mean the difference between being able to eat or pay rent.”
Dave Moskowitz, who lost his job at BLT Steak Waikiki, said the overloaded system is also causing problems for those who already have active claims and are required to reenter the system to update their information every two weeks.
“I tried all day yesterday to get on and report wages, hours and work status,” Moskowitz said. “What’s happening is completely unacceptable.”
DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said the system for reporting work status “will be back up when the portal becomes available. If there are any glitches on a claim, we will honor the claim.”
Before unemployment claims spiked, it typically took about 14 days for a claimant to receive benefits. Now, DLIR won’t even attempt to estimate the wait. Still, Kunstman said DLIR has significantly stepped up resources.
“We have internally re-allocated staffing so we have an additional 45 staff working on unemployment matters,” he said.
“We’re working with (the state Department of Human Resources Development) to deploy other state workers for (unemployment insurance). We also are in the process of setting up a volunteer call center at (Hawaii Technology Development Corporation’s) Sandbox in Kakaako,” Kunstman said. “In addition, we’re working with some of the ethnic chambers to help Limited English Proficiency persons file with us.”