The state is poised to send out the first of many thousands of weekly $600 “plus-up” unemployment payments to laid-off workers, according to Scott Murakami, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
State labor officials Saturday launched a new system to automatically add the $600 federal payments to the base payments of state unemployment insurance, and the first checks and transfers with the extra money included will be distributed Wednesday to 9,830 people, according to state labor officials.
During the coronavirus pandemic the labor department has been swamped by an unprecedented flood of unemployment claims that totaled 244,330 from the beginning of March through Wednesday. The newspaper USA Today has estimated Hawaii’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation, and more recent data suggest it may have reached 37%.
The so-called “plus-up” payments of $600 per week were approved by Congress and President Trump on March 27 in response to the pandemic and the economic crash that came with it, but the extra payments presented a logistical problem for the already overwhelmed Hawaii labor department and its antiquated mainframe computer system.
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 not work this time, which meant the state essentially needed to develop a new system for automatically combining the plus-up payments with the base payments.
Murakami said the new system has now successfully processed $5.898 million in plus-up payments, with the first payments going to workers who filed “clean” claims without errors or missing information.
The state expects the volume of plus-up payments to ramp up in the weeks ahead with help from state workers in the newly established claim processing and call center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center. Those workers from the Legislature and state departments are now sorting through claims that have stalled because they have missing or incorrect information, he said.
“We have to go through all of these claims that are not clean claims,” he said. “It’s not an easy thing to file a claim; there are a lot of nuances to it that could easily result in an error in the claim. So, we have to individually go through those now and fix it, and those are the people who unfortunately have been waiting a long time.”
Murakami said he understands that many people can’t wait anymore. “I will assure everyone that they will get their full benefit. The problem that the community is running into right now is cash flow. It doesn’t matter (that) we owe it to them; they need the money now. So, the sooner we can clear it, the sooner they’ll get their full benefit.”
Murakami estimated earlier this month that 45,000 to 150,000 claims might need some sort of follow-up or verification before they can be processed, and said Monday he does not know how long it will take before everyone who is entitled to plus-up payments actually gets them.
Another problem the department is trying to sort out is how to pay unemployment benefits to sole proprietors and independent contractors, who traditionally would not draw unemployment checks. The federal CARES Act included provisions for paying unemployment to contractors, but the state does not have a mechanism in place for doing that.
Murakami said the labor department is working with state tax officials on a solution that would allow DLIR to use tax data to verify income for those contractors, which would then allow the labor department to calculate the correct unemployment benefits.
That will be an entirely new program known as PUA, or the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, that is funded entirely with federal funds, Murakami said. He told the state Senate earlier this month that the new program should be running by early May, but said Monday he is unsure whether that launch date will change.
The labor department has provided a step-by-step description of how to file a claim at 808ne.ws/34AhppQ.