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More fixes to Hawaii unemployment system coming soon

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                The Starbucks on Kapahulu Avenue has closed its cafe but has pickup for orders from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    The Starbucks on Kapahulu Avenue has closed its cafe but has pickup for orders from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Display shelves in the Valentino retail store at the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki are bare due to the temporary closure from the COVID-19 pandemic.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Display shelves in the Valentino retail store at the Royal Hawaiian Center in Waikiki are bare due to the temporary closure from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hawaii’s still-overburdened unemployment system is slated for more upgrades this week and next week to ease a jam in which 153,949 claims filed since March have yet to be paid.

The improvements include personnel reinforcements and a computer programming enhancement that should speed up resolution of claim errors and remove an impediment to recertifying claims.

Also, thousands of self-employed and so-called gig economy workers should be able to claim special federal unemployment benefits before the end of the week instead of mid-May.

Scott Murakami, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, shared Tuesday what represents a fourth round of unemployment system upgrades during the coronavirus pandemic with the state Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.

The quickest coming change will separate claim certifications from the state’s antiquated mainframe computer that Murakami said was developed in the early 1980s and serves several agencies.

“This is our vulnerable spot,” he told the committee. “We do have all hands on deck for that.”

Murakami said claim recertifications should move to an independent online portal running 24 hours a day by Thursday or Friday and allow people who successfully filed an initial claim to recertify the claim weekly or biweekly as required.

Many people in this position have been unable to do so because too many people are trying at once.

“It’s cut off,” Murakami said. “They can’t log in because there’s so much traffic that’s congesting the portal to the mainframe.”

This mainframe disconnection solution is similar to what DLIR did in late March with a new claim-filing portal.

Also by Friday, DLIR expects to allow independent contractors, the self- employed, gig economy workers and freelancers to begin applying for special federal pandemic unemployment assistance, also known as PUA.

Such workers aren’t normally covered by state unemployment insurance, which is a trust fund that employers pay into through payroll taxes.

Previously, DLIR estimated a mid-May rollout for PUA.

The agency also previously advised such workers to file traditional claims, which resulted in claim errors that suggested filers could appeal in writing within 10 days and learn more about the problem by logging into accounts on the already jammed mainframe.

Another coming improvement is slated to be done by Monday, when DLIR expects to quadruple the number of emergency volunteer workers, to 120 from 30, at a call center that opened Saturday at the Hawai‘i Convention Center to resolve relatively minor filing errors with claimants over the phone. Extra manpower has mainly come from underused or nonworking state employees at other agencies.

And by May 8 another emergency computer workstation operation at the convention center will be outfitted with phones so that staff there can address the most difficult claim issues, which often require investigation and communication with employers and claimants.

Murakami said this realm of claim issues is of great concern because 78,269 claims are caught up in this area and can involve disagreements between employees and employers over whether a job separation was involuntary.

From the beginning of March through Monday, 223,359 claims have been filed, excluding duplicates.

The agency has managed to pay 69,410 claims, or 31%.

Another 124,064 claims, or 55%, have pending issues or errors that can be as simple as entering a trade name instead of a company’s official name or involve a more complex problem requiring a claims investigator. Applications by the self-employed and others not covered by unemployment insurance also can be in this category.

DLIR also has denied 29,885 claims.

Through Friday, DLIR said it has paid out $154 million in claim benefits, including a federal benefit add-on of $600 to the weekly state benefit, which tops out at $648.

State Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moana- lua-Halawa) encouraged Murakami to keep improving the system and to communicate with unemployed workers who are frustrated that they can’t reach anyone to learn the status of their claims.

Kim said one constituent reported making 150 unanswered phone calls to a DLIR hotline in one hour.

“They don’t know, so they keep calling,” Kim said. “They’re writing me and saying, ‘I can’t feed my kids. I got $80 in the bank. What am I going to do? I haven’t heard (about my claim). I’ve been out since March.’ That’s the kind of heart- wrenching emails we’re getting. What do we tell them?”

Murakami said he knows people need money from unemployment insurance, and said DLIR continues working on improvements. He also assured the public that accrued benefits will be paid to everyone who is eligible.

“They will get their full benefit up to the date of their separation,” he said.

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