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More money to flow to Hawaii’s unemployed

After being overwhelmed by more than 200,000 Hawaii unemployment claims since March, state officials have begun to ramp up payments.

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported Wednesday that it issued $11.2 million in payouts last week to unemployed workers, up from $4.1 million in each of the prior two weeks and $2.9 million in each of the first three weeks of March.

During the first two days of this week, another $11 million in payouts were made.

“I believe it was about a 230% increase over what we normally pay each week,” Scott Murakami, the agency’s director, said during a news conference in the office of Gov. David Ige. “I assure you the money is flowing out.”

At the same time, Murakami asked for patience from many people who have filed unemployment claims or struggled to file unemployment claims on an antiquated and overwhelmed system that DLIR has worked to upgrade. The Department of Labor has been working to better staff its unemployment section with borrowed workers mainly from other areas within the department and 18 workers from other departments.

Since March 1, DLIR has received 237,048 unemployment claims as businesses have closed or reduced work hours to comply with government orders aimed at stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus.

That volume compares with about 18,000 unemployed people during all of last year.

Murakami said he couldn’t say how many claims have been fulfilled with payments this month because weekly payout data can include overdue payments to some of the same claimants.

If each claim was for the maximum weekly state benefit of $648, the $11.2 million paid last week could satisfy about 17,000 claims. However, many claims are likely below the maximum, as they are based on how much income a filer had been making and lost.

If DLIR were to pay all 237,048 claims at the maximum benefit amount, it would total $154 million per week. Again though, many claims aren’t for the maximum.

Murakami said his latest projection is that the state could exhaust its trust fund for paying claims on May 10. That date could be earlier if the state is able to reduce the lag time between when a claim is filed and a payment is issued from three weeks to two weeks.

At the end of February, the trust fund held $576 million, which is money paid by Hawaii businesses in the form of payroll taxes.

Regardless of when the fund is exhausted, DLIR can tap a federal fund for an interest-free loan to cover unemployment benefits.

“We have been assured that the funds will be available,” Murakami said.

The federal government also is providing an extra $600 per week in benefits for unemployed workers to be distributed by DLIR. However, DLIR hasn’t yet been able to add the federal money to state checks because of integration issues.

Murakami previously said that his agency hopes to start distributing the first federal “plus-up” payments by April 22.

To check on the status of an unemployment claim, you can visit huiclaims2020.hawaii.gov/status.

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