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Hawaii unemployment officials finally distributing extra COVID-19 federal aid

  • JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Scott Murakami, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, spoke during a press conference on March 19. Murakami asked for patience as the system has experienced a massive overload of claims.

    JAMM AQUINO / JAQUINO@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Scott Murakami, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, spoke during a press conference on March 19. Murakami asked for patience as the system has experienced a massive overload of claims.

Beleaguered state unemployment officials are finally distributing bonus federal unemployment benefit payments to Hawaii residents who have suffered income losses amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced Friday that it paid out $44.8 million of federal “plus up” payments over seven days through Thursday.

This sum represents the first weekly distribution by DLIR of the federal unemployment aid, which adds $600 per week to the state unemployment benefit that can be up to $648 a week but varies by an individual’s income.

DLIR reported paying $23.2 million in state unemployment benefits over the same seven days.

The state benefit portion represents an increase from $11.2 million from two weeks earlier and $2.9 million in each of the first three weeks of March.

The federal supplement was authorized by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act signed into law March 27.

However, DLIR had no automated way to distribute the federal money through its antiquated state computer system for paying Hawaii unemployment benefits. The agency had projected that it would have a solution by Wednesday.

The $44.8 million in federal benefits equates to 74,748 payments at $600 each.

DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said some of the payments were for more than one week per individual claimant because unpaid benefits had been accruing on claims that encountered filing or processing delays.

Despite the rising payouts, thousands of newly unemployed residents still have not been able to receive benefits or maintain weekly benefits because of continued problems with the state’s online unemployment system being unable to handle the monumental volume of new claims and a requirement for filers to update their claims weekly or biweekly.

The state also has been unable to accept unemployment claims authorized under a new federal program to provide benefits to the self-employed, independent contractors and freelancers. An online system to handle these claims is projected to be ready by mid-May.

More than 250,000 residents have filed unemployment claims with the state since mid-March, and many of these claims haven’t been completed or processed.

To help alleviate the backlog of unaddressed claims and deliver more benefit proceeds, DLIR has tried to improve its system and has received volunteer staff from other state departments along with computers and phones to help process claims.

“The department was able to deliver a record level of benefits in a week, and for that I am tremendously grateful for our workers,” Scott Murakami, DLIR director, said in a statement. “We know that there are still many in our community who are suffering, and with the help of our sister departments, the Legislature, private sector partners and nonprofits, we are resolute in providing a greater level of relief as soon as possible.”

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