State officials cannot say how soon Hawaii’s unemployed workers will receive an extra $600 a week in federally promised benefits because they still haven’t been able to automate the state system to add the extra money to unemployment checks for workers who lost their jobs in the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers were told Thursday.
Scott Murakami, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said that as of Wednesday night his department had received 207,126 unemployment filings — not counting duplicate filings — which is a record.
Murakami told members of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 that he cannot say what fraction of the people who filed have actually received unemployment checks, because the antiquated mainframe computer that handles unemployment cannot spit out that information.
The state unemployment system has been overwhelmed, and Murakami described for lawmakers some of the steps his department has taken to shorten the time required for processing claims — which normally takes 21 days — and cutting checks.
The $600 federal “plus-up” payments that are supposed to be added to workers’ weekly unemployment benefits were approved by Congress and President Donald Trump on March 27, but Murakami said that similar “plus-up” payments in Hawaii in 2008 were added to unemployment checks manually.
“We just don’t have the manpower to do that. We are trying to automate that process now,” Murakami said.
“For right now we’re just trying to get the original claims through. At this point I cannot make a guess as to when that’s going to happen. I’m sorry, I wish I could provide claimants with a better answer than that, but I would be disingenuous if I just guessed at it,” Murakami told senators. “So, to just be honest, at this point we’re still going through (federal) guidance, and we’re working it as diligently as we can. We are trying to automate the process because clearly, under a pandemic situation, we can’t have people filing things manually.”
People who file claims do not need to do anything to claim the extra benefit or the 13 weeks of extended benefits, he said.
Murakami said state officials are seeing a leveling off in the number of new claims, but estimated that 45,000 claims that have been filed are missing data, or “the data needs to be adjusted.”
“We do have people trying to call them,” he said, but “the worst-case scenario that we’re looking at with following up is about 150,000 people. That’s why it’s so tough for us to do it; that’s why at that point we need people to help us.”
Lawmakers have been pressing Gov. David Ige’s administration to find ways to transfer more idled state workers to the Labor Department, but Murakami said those workers need to be trained and get comfortable with the system.
“Our system isn’t that simple. It’s an old system that resides on a mainframe, and I tried to do it myself, and to just try to follow claims through goes through about seven screens that you have to verify. That’s in an old, antiquated green-screen environment.”
State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said that “we have a lot of people out there that have no clue how they’re going to feed their families, as to what date they can plan on, how long they have to scrimp and save with whatever savings they have, and this is so important.”
Kim said senators have identified 706 state workers who could be redeployed to help, and said the Senate volunteered to provide 40 staff, but Kim said that offer was turned down by Ige’s chief of staff, Linda Chu Takayama.
Murakami said his department has put in a request for 58 additional staff.
“I want to get money out to people as quickly as possible, but there are federal compliance requirements we have,” Murakami said. “We’re already getting calls from our business community saying, ‘Hey, you guys are being too lax with the ability to pay people because we don’t want to get an experience rating increase and then have to pay for this on the back end.’”