Across Hawaii, at least 225,000 people are out of work, and mostly out of sight. Largely private-sector workers, many stripped of jobs in the dormant tourism sector, they toil away nonetheless — trying to navigate the state’s decrepit unemployment insurance filing system.
Over the past two months, Kokua Line has heard from hundreds if not thousands of them, despairing as they wait for unemployment insurance benefits. Today, we turn the column over to them, distilling their hundreds of suggestions to a few key points that we hope the governor, state lawmakers and involved departments will seriously consider.
Although the pace of claims processing increased last week, as the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations added capacity, the system remains backlogged. As of Thursday, 81,724 of 226,883 claims “on the main frame” were unresolved, the department said. Moreover, 40,604 of the 145,159 claims that were processed — nearly 28% — were denied.
Idle workers in that pool not being paid by another means (such as an employer’s Paycheck Protection loan) will have to appeal (and win) or move on to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, submitting a separate application and waiting once again. Also unresolved are roughly 6,000 claims filed in March that the degraded mainframe couldn’t accept. The good news is that 104,555 (72%) of the claims processed last week were approved and paid, the department said.
All of these claims represent Hawaii’s people, not mere statistics — people with families to feed, bills to pay and lives to live. While politicians stand up for public workers, vowing to protect them from pay cuts and furloughs as the Legislature reconvenes Monday, who speaks for the private-sector workers already displaced? Here, they speak for themselves, briefly summarized from hundreds of comments, emails and phone calls.
>> Hawaii must rise to the spirit of the U.S. CARES Act to swiftly pay workers dislocated by the COVID-19 pandemic by streamlining the UI approval process. Specific suggestions include having employers provide lists of affected workers, to being paid during processing (not after); temporarily waiving weekly or biweekly claim certifications (at least one other state has done so); and creating a COVID-specific filing system for affected employees (or alternatively, their employers). Bottom line, they say: It is cruel to expect people to go without any income for two months or more.
The DLIR insists it’s doing all it can to assist within the bounds of the federal law, but readers assert otherwise, pointing to guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor they say gives more leeway than Hawaii has exercised. Read the guidance at 808ne.ws/dolguide.
>> If swiftly paying through DLIR proves impossible, find an interim way to do so, through existing state funds or federal funds flowing in to cope with the pandemic. Recipients could later relinquish UI or PUA payments to refund the interim payments. The state has tools to catch scofflaws.
>> Open unemployment offices to in-person visits by appointment, with social distancing measures in place. The state must allow claimants to appear in person to get help filing claims online and to resolve problems holding up existing claims. The DLIR says “clean claims” are processed in two weeks. But many initial claims aren’t clean, as stressed-out filers make typos and any number of other mistakes. Then they describe a Catch-22, unable to retrieve the claim online to edit themselves and unable to reach anyone by phone or email to fix it for them. If post offices, grocery stores and other facilities can be open, the unemployment office should be, too — now more than ever.
>> Assign staff to immediately resolve roughly 6,000 claims that people thought they had filed in March but which were not “ingested” by the degraded mainframe. The DLIR says that these claims are not lost, but that staff will have to “run them down.”
>> Expand call center hours. Create a callback queue (as many businesses and agencies do) so that calls are returned in order. Auto-reply to emails so senders know they were received. Assign sufficient staff to respond to calls and emails. What claimants experience as a black hole of nonresponse feeds their anxiety and fuels the system overload, as they try endlessly to log in, call and email.
>> Continuously update FAQs prominently on the DLIR website, explaining how to avoid common filing errors and how to decipher messages that commonly appear in users’ online UI accounts.
>> Upgrade DLIR’s computer systems and move operations to the cloud, where capacity could be scaled up and down as needed. Tap into federal funds to do this as soon as possible. Don’t treat the surge in unemployment claims as a one-time problem, with Hawaii’s pandemic economy so uncertain.
>> Stop talking so much about how to kick people off UI, before many claimants have received even their first check. It strikes struggling people as callous, when they’d like nothing better than to earn a living as they once did.
That’s a sliver of what we’re hearing. We’ll continue the conversation next week.
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