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Angst rises as Hawaii’s archaic system prevents timely unemployment payments

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Jodi Kealoha, owner of 808 SUP, applied for unemployment in March. The struggling employer and single mother’s application is still pending, and she can’t get back into the system to certify her claim.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Jodi Kealoha, owner of 808 SUP, applied for unemployment in March. The struggling employer and single mother’s application is still pending, and she can’t get back into the system to certify her claim.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Jodi Kealoha held a portrait of her 7-year-old son, Koa.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Jodi Kealoha held a portrait of her 7-year-old son, Koa.

Jodi Kealoha, owner of 808 SUP, “A Mom and Son Shop,” applied for unemployment the fourth week of March after COVID-19 lockdowns closed her Haleiwa business.

A month later her application is still pending even though she’s spent several hours a day trying to get into the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ website and to contact the department by phone or email.

To make matters worse, she is self-employed and just this week discovered that the state must build a new system before it can distribute federal pandemic unemployment assistance (PUA) to self-employed individuals. The federal funds, which were approved as part of the CARES Act, offer support for self-employed, independent contractors, gig economy workers and freelancers. The PUA program also might cover some people who are seeking part-time work, lack sufficient work history or otherwise don’t qualify for regular unemployment compensation or extended benefits.

State DLIR Director Scott Murakami originally told Hawaii residents to apply for PUA through the state unemployment insurance website, but on Wednesday advised those filing for PUA to wait until DLIR and the state Department of Taxation develop a new system.

Rona Suzuki, state Department of Taxation director, told a Senate COVID-19 committee Wednesday that the state was trying to transfer existing PUA claims to the new website but that it wasn’t expected to be up until mid-May.

By then Kealoha worries it will be too late to save her business, which employs six part-time workers — who haven’t been able to get their benefits, either.

The single mother also fears she won’t be able to make rent and support her 7-year-old son, Koa. In April 2019, Kealoha’s business generated $8,000 in sales. This April, she’s brought in $90, and that was only after selling a piece of business equipment.

Kealoha wonders how she and others are supposed to hold on when the lifelines government touted aren’t there. She also applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and was approved through a bank, but the program ran out of funds before she could get her share.

“We’ve been underwater for two, three, four, five, six weeks. We just can’t hold our breath anymore. We are going to run out of oxygen. We’re not going to make it if we don’t get help now,” a teary Kealoha said. “Just talking about it brings me extreme anxiety. It’s been an absolute nightmare, and I know there are hundreds of thousands of people just like me.”

Kealoha is hardly the only Hawaii resident complaining that unemployment and PUA checks are hard to get and that DLIR isn’t easily reached.

One step forward …

Even some Hawaii claimants who have managed to get into the system are having a hard time getting back on to create an account, which is required to receive their first check.

Other claimants, who have accounts and already have received at least one check, have complained that they are experiencing pay disruptions. They say DLIR’s overwhelmed website sometimes prevents them from meeting weekly or biweekly deadlines to prove they are still unemployed. Without proving that, claimants will not continue getting benefits.

DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman confirmed that the unemployment insurance money “stops until the weekly/biweekly certification is made” and that the claimant is then “eligible for the benefit retroactively.”

More than 244,000 Hawaii filings in the wake of COVID-19 have overwhelmed DLIR’s antiquated system and created lengthy waits. Murakami acknowledges that the state has a backlog, but said he couldn’t quantify how many applicants are waiting to get checks due to the system’s limited data analytics capabilities.

Glen Winterbottom, a self-employed T-shirt wholesaler who hadn’t worked since March 11, was optimistic Wednesday after learning that his April 9 filing finally had been approved. However, he was less hopeful about his situation Thursday, after he couldn’t get past the website’s first page to create an account.

“The website was overloaded and said to ‘try again later,’” Winterbottom said. “For some reason the site is only functional between 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m., but I’ll try again every half-hour this evening until it closes. Apparently, the UI (unemployment insurance) folks still have quite a ways to go before anything is functioning reasonably well.”

Sierra Sroka, formerly in timeshare sales, experienced difficulty this week trying to certify her established claim.

“Why is the website constantly bogged down? Also, why hasn’t it been fixed in the last month?” Sroka said. “It’s really nerve-racking. I don’t have kids relying on me, but every day that goes by, I wonder if I’m going to get paid. My rent is coming due and I have bills to pay.”

Impatience growing

Murakami said the state is working hard to reduce wait times. But clearly, Hawaii’s unemployed workers and those who want to see them promptly assisted are growing impatient.

State Sen. Donna Kim (D, Kapalama-Alewa-Kalihi Valley) was distressed Wednesday when Suzuki told a COVID-19 Senate committee that the PUA system likely wouldn’t be running until around mid-May.

“They (the unemployed workers) don’t have any money, and they’ve been out for a month. Now you are telling us it won’t be until the middle of next month. You can’t sustain people that way,” Kim said.

Murakami told Gov. David Ige on Wednesday that the department has taken steps to be more proactive and efficient.

With state volunteers undergoing training to help process claims, Murakami said on average it’s taking 15 days to get checks out if claims are error-free. Workers whose claims are pending should still file weekly claim certification, Mura­kami said. Those who haven’t heard back in three weeks should probably file new claims, he said.

The system rings busy after 115 calls are pending, so Murakami said the state is launching a third call center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.

Murakami said the state also has tried to reduce system traffic by creating an inquiry portal for checking claim status. Those who haven’t received back pay and are entitled to it also should email the department at dlir.ui.backdate@hawaii.gov rather than visit the site.

Some claimants will be owed back pay due to lengthy processing times either because their applications had errors or the state was backlogged. The state also will owe some claimants who are eligible for benefits under the CARES Act, which expands unemployment insurance by an extra 13 weeks and temporarily provides an extra $600 in weekly benefits.

Murakami said workers with existing claims started getting the $600 weekly federal “plus up” on Wednesday. But PUA program claimants won’t see that money until their claims are processed.

Kunstman said the state handles back pay “on a case-by-case situation, but it’s likely it may take several weeks for us to catch up.”

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