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Editorial: Hawaii unemployment office needs help

  • BRUCE ASATO / MARCH 23, 2020
                                Christopher Foster was laid off from his retail job in February and said he has tried to get online hundreds of times for an unemployment application. When he was unable to connect, he decided to appear at the office in person, which remains closed. Hawaii has now received more than 205,700 unemployment claims in the weeks since March 1.

    BRUCE ASATO / MARCH 23, 2020

    Christopher Foster was laid off from his retail job in February and said he has tried to get online hundreds of times for an unemployment application. When he was unable to connect, he decided to appear at the office in person, which remains closed. Hawaii has now received more than 205,700 unemployment claims in the weeks since March 1.

Even as the coronavirus public-health battle rages on, a painful number of casualties already is strewn across the economic landscape.

Businesses small and large are now struggling, some for their very survival. Time is of the essence to provide lifelines to laid-off workers. On this particular front line, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) is bearing the brunt of joblessness relief. And while it has stepped up under Director Scott Murakami to handle a staggering deluge of claims, DLIR has to do more, quickly — and Gov. David Ige must move to provide the manpower it needs, immediately.

The state has now received more than 205,700 unemployment claims in the weeks since March 1. That is in stark contrast to pre-coronavirus times, when an average month saw 3,000-4,000 claims. Each claim represents a person who lost a job, got furloughed or had hours cut, which means angst and suffering in many households. It now falls on DLIR to process claims as swiftly and efficiently as possible. It’s been far from that.

The sheer numbers have been exacerbated by old technology and clunky bureaucracy. Murakami and staff are fielding claimants’ queries — while also working to cut red tape to be more nimble in processing claims, such as:

>> Eliminating the requirement to wait five days for employers to verify a claim before DLIR starts processing.

>> Eliminating the requirements for employers to certify partial unemployment claims.

>> Eliminating need for applicants to submit work-search requirements. One common frustration of jobless applicants has been the job-search question: “Were you available to work?” Murakami said to just hit the “yes” button (not the “no”) to get around computerized protocols.

Other sources of frustration have been people’s inability to even get onto the overloaded website, or through to the call center via phone or via emails.

Let’s all hope that relief is just around the corner, as Murakami relayed Thursday to a state Senate committee. Troubleshooting is occurring on IT carrying-capacity limitations at the newly opened call center at the Kakaako “Sandbox” facility, which has been plagued this week with spotty connectivity due to heavy demand.

Also encouraging: Another call center is due for rollout Tuesday at the state’s main library, using 10 library staffers retrained to handle claims.

Manpower, of course, has been another huge problem. Pre-coronavirus, DLIR had seven staffers processing jobless claims; today, by reallocating staffers within the department, that number is 83. Still, that’s not nearly enough — DLIR is urgently asking for at least 58 more staffers — and here’s one area where Ige and his Human Resources Department (HRD) have failed.

It’s taken more than three weeks for HRD to gauge how many state government employees deemed nonessential are sitting idle at home because they can’t telework. That was finally answered publicly on Wednesday: 706 workers.

Human Resources Director Ryker Wada then told the Senate committee that about 90 of those 706 would be reassigned by Monday to agencies in need. But really, such redeployment of idle workers should have occurred well before now, and some 600 still remain in the status quo.

As for DLIR, the improvements undertaken and underway should cut claims-to-checks processing down to 14 days, from the federally required 21-day window. But much more support, in manpower and in dollars, will be essential to keep Hawaii afloat; otherwise, the health and jobless crises will drown far too many in this once-robust economy.

UNEMPLOYMENT AID

>> To submit a claim: https://huiclaims2020.hawaii.gov/initial-claim (password reset: (833) 901-2272)

>> To estimate weekly benefit online: https://huiclaims2.hawaii.gov/UI_ClaimWEB/pages/calculator/calculator.jsf

>> Hotline for questions: (833) 901-2275

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