Painful to watch in the coronavirus pandemic is Gov. David Ige’s callous lack of urgency in getting unemployment checks to the more than 200,000 Hawaii workers left without income in the local economic shutdown.
A third of Hawaii’s workforce — second only to Nevada — lost their jobs as hotels, stores and restaurants closed their doors.
Yet between March 1 and April 26, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations paid only 65,252 of 225,394 unemployment claims filed as its staff, phones and online portal were overwhelmed.
It’s unconscionable that so many people desperate for help have suffered the added stress of encountering busy phones and unresponsive computers hundreds of times over days and weeks.
COVID-19 hit with unprecedented speed and disruption, and Ige can’t be blamed for not being immediately ready to deal with an exponential rise in unemployment from 2% to more than 30%.
But he and DLIR can be faulted for their plodding and inept efforts to overcome the challenges.
Ige had a virtual army of state workers sitting home with little to do who could have been deployed to help process unemployment claims. He had hundreds of phone lines in closed state offices that could have been repurposed for unemployment calls. He could have quickly marshaled computer expertise to work around antiquated systems.
The governor did none of these under his clear emergency powers, apparently worried about the response of public workers unions, which were consumed with demanding hazard pay for those still working and fending off pay cuts and furloughs as state tax revenues began to dip 20% or more.
The vacuum left the Legislature to take the lead in addressing the unemployment logjam.
Tired of Labor Director Scott Murakami’s weak excuses about why Ige hadn’t assigned idle state workers to process unemployment claims, legislators offered their own staffs and in some cases volunteered themselves.
Public union leaders wised up to the bad optics of whining about their own pay while doing little to help their unemployed brethren in the private sector, and “volunteers” from the idled ranks materialized.
Ige finally got on board and a call center staffed by 120 volunteer workers is taking shape at the Hawai‘i Convention Center to begin clearing unemployment claims. New online portals are helping reduce the computer glitches.
The job is far from over, with 60% of the claims still to be processed, the first $600 plus-up payments funded by the federal CARES Act just going out and the application process only now starting on benefits for unemployed gig workers authorized by Congress.
As more challenges inevitably emerge, it’s on Ige to utilize the considerable resources he commands to get these people expeditiously paid what they need to survive — and it shouldn’t take arm-twisting by frustrated legislators to supply the urgency.
Reach David Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.