The state hopes to start distributing by April 22 the first of many thousands of checks that will include the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits that has been promised by the federal government, according to Scott Murakami, state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations director.
Murakami told the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19 last week that the state could not immediately begin paying out the weekly $600 “plus-up” payments because there is no automated system for adding the extra money to the base payments of state unemployment benefits.
Murakami said Tuesday his department is testing a new automated system for adding in the extra benefits, and plans to launch the new system Friday. But he told lawmakers he does not know when all of the state’s unemployed workers will actually receive their extra payments, or even how long it will be before each filer gets a base payment.
“That’s a question that’s hard to answer because we have such a big backlog of claims,” he said. The first people to see the extra benefit amounts will be people who filed a “clean claim” that could be processed quickly, Murakami said.
The plus-up payments were approved by Congress and President Donald Trump on March 27 to try to cushion the shock of mass unemployment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time the state tried to include similar extra federal plus-up payments for unemployed workers was in 2008, when state staff manually added in money for each claimant.
That would be impossible this time. Murakami said the state labor department has been flooded with 230,631 unemployment claims as hotels, restaurants and other businesses have closed in response to the pandemic and the abrupt halt in mass tourism in Hawaii.
Murakami said he is not sure whether the extra federal benefit will be paid out in a separate check from the base unemployment amounts, but said the department is encouraging people to use direct deposit “because we have a limited supply of checks.”
The labor department has set up a new unemployment claims center on the second floor of the main public library, and hopes to launch a new call and claims center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Tuesday that will be equipped with 30 surplus state computers and 20 desktop computers provided by the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
The department will then have three locations, including the DLIR offices, where they can process claims, which will be important if any of the locations must shut down because of coronavirus infections, he said.
DLIR has requested 58 additional staff to assist with the extra workload, and the department received 18 workers from other departments Monday to help. But Murakami said some are expected to stay on the job for only a week, and added that “the work is really hard, so we did have three people of the 18 that just applied (to be) reassigned because it just wasn’t for them.”
Among the other challenges is a new federal requirement that unemployment benefits be made available to sole proprietors and independent contractors, which has been “a little tricky,” Murakami said. The department’s “target implementation date” for that is early May.
During his lengthy discussion with lawmakers Monday, Murakami demonstrated a new web portal the department launched Tuesday morning at 808ne.ws/2Vs9yGY to allow workers who have filed for benefits to check on their claims’ status.
The department also has provided a step-by step description of how to file a claim at 808ne.ws/34AhppQ.