Reinforcements could be headed to process a massive backlog of Hawaii unemployment claims as soon as Friday or Monday from a pool of 706 idle state workers.
That’s the “target date” for the state Department of Human Resources Development to redeploy the first of about 90 state employees from other departments, where they can’t work because of coronavirus safety measures but still get paid, to the state Department of Labor &Industrial Relations, where a struggle exists to process more than 200,000 unemployment claims filed since March.
Ryker Wada, DHRD director, informed members of the Special Senate Committee on COVID-19 of the expected reassignments at a Wednesday meeting during which he also provided the first public accounting of how many state employees have been idled with pay at many, but not all, state departments.
Wada also said he has yet to receive information from several departments — including the Department of Health, Department of Defense, Department of Agriculture, Department of Land &Natural Resources and Department of Business, Economic Development &Tourism — about how many emergency workers they could use.
The uncertain timetable for reassigning more idle workers drew critical comments from committee members.
“Why does it take us so long?” asked Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moanalua-Halawa). “There’s a lot of people out there who have lost their job and who can’t even get the unemployment.”
Since the beginning of March through Tuesday, 201,836 unemployment claims have been filed in Hawaii, including 6,903 Tuesday.
To help with the overload, DLIR has shifted workers from other areas within the department to help process claims but can’t project how long it will take to issue checks. The agency recently also posted hiring notices for temporary unemployment assistant and processing specialist jobs that pay $2,620 to $3,488 a month.
“A lot of the complaints we’re getting from unemployment is that people are not getting calls back,” Kim said. “They’re not being told whether or not their application has been even received. These are the kinds of things that we need to get (workers) doing, and they can do it from home. We have them sitting there already not doing anything.”
Wada agreed. “That’s exactly what we’re working on right now,” he said.
Still, Kim and other committee members were frustrated at the pace of sending DLIR help.
“Why does it take so long to create this wheel?” Kim said. “It shouldn’t be that difficult to do. We have so many people who don’t know if they’re going to get an unemployment check. It’s causing them mental distress. We have to move quickly. And I don’t want to hear excuses of why we’re not moving quicker.”
Added Sen. Sharon Moriwaki (D, Kakaako-McCully-Moiliili): “The problem is like yesterday and growing.”
Committee Chairman Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz (D, Mililani Mauka-Wahiawa) described DHRD’s work, which has included emailing all department directors for lists of idle workers and emergency job needs, as haphazard.
“It’s not a process,” he said. “You guys don’t have a system set up.”
Wada said there is a system but that no departments except for DLIR have responded yet to DHRD’s request for lists of needed workers by job position and skill. Once that happens, Wada said his department will be able to coordinate the filling of those needs.
In terms of which departments in the executive branch have idle workers, the state library system has the most at 241 followed by the Department of the Attorney General at 171 and the Department of Defense at 110.
There are roughly 73,000 state workers across executive, judiciary and legislative branches, according to state data.
However, the list of 706 idle workers includes only executive branch departments where DHRD governs human resources. This excludes the Department of Education, University of Hawaii and the Hawaii Health Systems Corp.
Wada said he won’t know how many of the 706 on the list would be redeployed.
“It’s all dependent on the requests and the need of the departments,” he said.
Wada, who noted that Friday is a state holiday, told committee members that some workers still doing their jobs could volunteer to work part of the day or extra hours helping other departments if they want to and their supervisors agree.