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Complaints over Hawaii unemployment claims persist despite progress

  • Video by Craig T. Kojima. Edited by Chelsee Yee.

    Hawaii's overburdened unemployment system is making headway in processing claims this week as fixes are implemented, including launching the new pandemic unemployment assistance program.

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                David Moskowitz stood in front of the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Wednesday to protest the lag in distributing unemployment payments.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARADVERTISER.COM

    David Moskowitz stood in front of the Hawai‘i Convention Center on Wednesday to protest the lag in distributing unemployment payments.

Hawaii’s overburdened unemployment system is making headway in processing claims this week as fixes are implemented, including launching the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

During the April 1 to April 28 benefit period, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations still had 180,129 claims in process out of 225,394 filings. But DLIR did manage to improve its payout ratio to 40%, or 72,813 claims. That’s up from less than a third of filings, some 65,252, paid between March 1 and and April 26.

DLIR also distributed another $169 million plus in state and federal funds. DLIR spokesman William Kunstman said the state has set up an open line of credit with the U.S. Treasury to assure that benefits won’t stop once the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund runs out. It’s also making staffing and system changes to improve access and efficiency.

But progress hasn’t been swift enough for some Hawaii residents and lawmakers.

Waikiki resident Dave Moskowitz launched a small protest Tuesday in front of the Hawai‘i Convention Center, where a beefed-up unemployment workforce is trying to make a dent processing a backlog of claims. Moskowitz carried a sign that read “Ige. Failed Leader. Where is OUR money?”

Moskowitz, who estimates the state still owes him about $3,700 since he filed his initial claim, is not alone. Complaints abound for all phases of the system from initial application to creating an active user account to certifying claims to keep the checks coming.

The continued angst over Hawaii’s unemployment system comes as Volusion releases a new report (808ne.ws/volusionreport). The report, which uses data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the U.S. Census Bureau, shows that the impact to Hawaii’s workforce during the coronavirus pandemic is second in the nation.

Hawaii trails only Nevada, which has a 35.5% share of employment in retail trade and leisure and hospitality workers. Hawaii has a 30.1% share in these sectors, which employ some 71,000 workers in retail and another 126,500 in leisure and hospitality.

Eduardo Imperial, who worked as an Aloha Ambassador in Waikiki before the COVID-19 outbreak, can attest to the role that the tourism meltdown has played in contributing to Hawaii’s economic woes. But Imperial, whose claim was among the 33,272 that DLIR has denied, said the state’s broken system has exacerbated those impacts.

Imperial, who was laid off March 23, received a denial letter two days ago instructing him to visit Room 425 of the DLIR office within 10 days to appeal.

“I believe that I am entitled to this money. When I showed up at the building yesterday, the sheriff told me it was closed,” Imperial said. “I’ve tried calling but I’ve either gotten a message that they have a high volume of calls or they’ve actually hung up on me. When I finally scheduled an appointment for a return call, they stood me up. It’s unbelievable and it’s so stressful.”

Honolulu City Councilwoman Kym Pine (D, Ewa Beach-Kapolei-Nanakuli-­Waianae) sent a letter to Gov. David Ige this week urging swifter progress.

Since special federal unemployment funds have been made available, Pine said she wants the state to immediately issue unemployment checks to every applicant that has been waiting for a payment since March 15, so that everyone can pay essential bills and feed their families.

“The state can take the next few months to review all of the unemployment claims for mistakes and any over-payments or fraudulent claims can be paid back by the applicants, as our system currently provides,” Pine said in her letter.

DLIR did make some strides this week. The department is reducing traffic on its main site by moving the weekly/biweekly certification process for those that have already filed an initial claim to an independent online portal that runs 24 hours a day.

It also began accepting pre-applications to distribute federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance on its website pua.hawaii.gov. Processing is expected around May 15.

The federal funds, which were approved as part of the CARES Act, offer support for the 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.

DLIR had hoped to allow PUA applicants who already had claims in the state system to transfer them into the new system. However, Kunstman said all PUA claimants, even those who made prior claims, will need to file through the new online form as there are divergent data fields.

By Monday, DLIR said it expects to address the role that errors play in delaying processing by raising the number of emergency volunteer workers at a Hawai‘i Convention call center to 120.

From April 1 to April 28, 107,326 filings required manual or interactive correction and there are another 11,983 filings that still have errors that need to be corrected.

HAWAII TAKES A LARGER HIT THAN EVERY STATE BUT NEVADA

Hawaii’s workforce is the 2nd most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic among the states, trailing only Nevada:

  • Share of employment in retail, leisure and hospitality: 30.1%
  • Total retail workers: 71,100
  • Total leisure and hospitality workers: 126,500
  • Cost of living: 18.5% above average
  • Percent below the poverty level: 8.8%

For reference, here are the statistics for the entire United States:

  • Share of employment in retail, leisure and hospitality: 21.3%
  • Total retail workers: 15,786,300
  • Total leisure and hospitality workers: 16,295,000
  • Cost of living: N/A
  • Percent below the poverty level: 13.1%

Source: Volusion

Correction: An earlier version of this story didn’t specify that a 120 volunteer count was just for a call center at the Hawai’i Convention Center rather than the whole center, where DLIR has about 426 volunteers processing claims.

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