Hundreds of state employees are volunteering to help process Hawaii’s crushing backlog of unemployment claims in hopes of speeding up checks to workers idled by COVID-19.
People are so eager to pitch in that they got rolling Monday, two days before the official launch. About 80 volunteers turned up for training and started processing claims in a cavernous convention center room where work stations were quickly installed over the weekend. Another 300 have signed up to help.
In just a few months, Hawaii’s unemployment rate has skyrocketed from one of the lowest in the country to the highest. The state labor department reported last week that 244,330 unemployment insurance claims were filed between March 1 and April 15. That’s roughly 37% of the estimated 651,650 people in Hawaii’s labor force in March.
The campaign to muster volunteers is part of an all-out effort by legislative leaders, various state departments and public-sector unions to get relief to the legions of unemployed workers across the islands.
“All of these people contributed so that thing exploded,” said Scott Murakami, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “I’ve got to hand it to my colleagues and the legislators because they actually took it on. They were the ones who mustered all the community support and put this thing together.”
Over the weekend, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, Hawaii State Teachers Association and University of Hawaii Professional Assembly put out a call to their members seeking volunteers for shifts to start Wednesday. Even some lawmakers have signed up to help.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said their goal is to ramp up to as many as 500 volunteers at a time at the convention center — if enough state computers can be secured. On Wednesday, he said, there were only about 50 people working at the labor department’s intake center when legislative leaders visited and resolved to take action.
“We recognized that a massive amount of help would be needed to tackle the backlog of unemployment insurance claims that exploded in a few weeks,” House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said. “The fastest way to tackle this enormous problem was to coordinate an unprecedented, across-government effort. This effort was stood up in just three days.”
Over the weekend, employees from various state departments set up new work stations with computers — spread out in keeping with social distancing guidelines — to get ready for the anticipated influx at the convention center.
“The challenge now is that the state doesn’t have enough computers at the convention center,” Saiki said. “They have 150 computers set up today. We’re hoping that over the next few days they’ll find more and be at the 500 capacity.”
After completing their training Monday, the 80 early-bird volunteers, many of whom were legislative staffers, managed to process 559 claims in about two hours, he said.
Only current state employees are eligible to volunteer to process unemployment forms, given the private nature of the information.
“We can’t take volunteers from the outside for security reasons and confidentiality reasons,” Saiki said.
Hawaii’s unemployment rate shot up from 2.7% at the start of this year to an estimated 21.7%, the highest in the country, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recent analysis by USA Today.
“These people need to get paid — it’s super important,” said Caroline Sluyter, communications officer for HGEA. “They (the labor department) already had volunteers down there and working seven days a week, but the volume is unprecedented.”
Tens of thousands of claims also need additional scrutiny for a variety of reasons, including mistakes made by claimants, Murakami said.
“It’s not an easy thing to file a claim,” Murakami said. “There are a lot of nuances to it that could easily result in an error in the claim. And we have go through those individually and fix it.”
State employees who want to volunteer must obtain permission from their supervisor and wait until they are confirmed for a shift before going to the convention center, Sluyter said.
“It’s a lot of people, and they are social-distancing inside the center,” Sluyter said. “We don’t want any additional people congregating that aren’t absolutely necessary. We want to get it done, but it needs to be safe. They are going to be asked to bring their own masks, and the convention center will be doing enhanced cleaning all throughout the day while they’re there.”
To handle the avalanche of claims, the labor department had to rely on an antiquated computer system.
“The processing of an unemployment insurance claim is tedious and complicated, and DLIR was working day and night to process them,” said House Labor Committee Chairman Aaron Ling Johanson. “This should provide much-needed assistance to exponentially increase the processing capabilities of the state … and get people the relief they need.”
State employees who would like to volunteer can sign up online at hawaii works.org.
Star-Advertiser staff writer Kevin Dayton contributed to this report.