A critical need in Hawaii is growing for overwhelmed state agencies to perform emergency tasks, but Gov. David Ige isn’t prepared to suspend collective bargaining rules to shift idle workers on the payroll between departments.
Linda Chu Takayama, Ige’s chief of staff, told a special state Senate panel Friday that the Hawaii Department of the Attorney General is researching whether it’s possible to immediately redeploy state workers who have been told to stay home with pay and not work.
Takayama told the Special Senate Committee on COVID-19 that the Ige administration is working as fast as possible to cover critical state needs that include four departments asking for emergency staff help.
But panel members were critical of what they see as slow action.
“The urgency of this emergency doesn’t seem to be felt by the administration,” said state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (D, Kakaako- McCully-Moiliili).
To date, requests by state agencies for help have come from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, Department of Health, Department of Defense and Department of Agriculture, according to Ryker Wada, director of the Department of Human Resources Development.
DLIR has one of the most urgent needs because it has insufficient staff to timely process a flood of unemployment claims even after shifting workers from other parts of the agency.
Since the beginning of March, 160,396 new claims, excluding duplicates, have been filed. Unemployment checks typically are delivered three weeks after a claim is filed, but the timetable now can’t be reasonably projected by DLIR.
Two other state agencies, the Department of Land & Natural Resources and the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism also have expressed needs for help, according to committee members.
Wada, who spoke at the committee meeting Friday, told senators that his department should have a list ready Tuesday showing how many idle state workers there are in every department.
That would allow overwhelmed departments to match their needs with idle workers possessing compatible skills.
However, it’s still unclear when any redeployments could take place.
Wada said his agency is in regular contact with public worker unions, and that Ige has yet to decide whether to “effectuate” suspension of collective bargaining rules that he can carry out under an emergency proclamation he issued March 4.
A request to Ige media liaisons to explain the governor’s position on the issue was not answered Friday.
Wada noted that requests have been made for idle employees to volunteer to help DLIR, which would not need a collective bargaining rules suspension.
Senators on the committee, however, wanted to see emergency state department needs met faster and more effectively.
Moriwaki called the state workforce, which is around 73,000 strong, a “massive force” that can help community recovery work that includes assisting businesses secure financial aid, maintaining public bathrooms where toilet paper is being stolen and other tasks.
“I’m very disappointed it’s not happening,” she said. “It is not business as usual.”
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, committee chairman, also pushed for more action and noted that the panel asked in early March for a breakdown of how many paid state employees are continuing normal work, how many are working remotely and how many aren’t working.
“The strategy doesn’t seem to be as proactive as reactive,” said Dela Cruz (D, Mililani Mauka-Wahiawa). “A lot of this is really the governor’s call.”
Takayama, who once headed DLIR, said the administration is prudently getting a grasp first on which employees are idle and what positions are needed by overwhelmed departments.
“We are working with all due speed to get this done,” she said.