Scott Murakami, the director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, is currently on leave, putting his deputy in charge, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige’s office confirmed Saturday.
Deputy Director Anne E. Perreira-Eustaquio is leading the department during Murakami’s absence, said Ige spokeswoman Cindy McMillan. She said no further information could be provided.
Murakami was running the department when the coronavirus pandemic led to the shutdown of Hawaii’s tourism economy and more than a quarter of the state’s workforce being unemployed. An antiquated computer system hamstrung the department and forced those seeking unemployment assistance into a frustrating claim-filing process, with many waiting months for financial relief.
Murakami told a state House committee last month that his employees were receiving death threats because of the issues filing claims.
Before the coronavirus, Hawaii had one of the best unemployment rates in the nation, but dropped to third worst among states in April. That month, the office brought in hundreds of state volunteers to help process claims at the Hawai‘i Convention Center and switched to an online portal running 24 hours a day to ease the logjam.
Sen. Kurt Fevella, a member of the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19, said he was shocked and disappointed to hear Murakami was on leave, but he didn’t have details about why it happened.
He said Murakami appeared to have a good plan for addressing the unemployment backlog when he gave the committee a tour of the special operating center at the convention center.
“He got dealt something in a crisis that was lacking for years,” Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Ewa Villages) said of the department’s computer system. “This man wasn’t sleeping. He was basically working day and night to fix a problem for the state.”
In mid-May, Murakami told a Senate committee his department received about 250,000 claims and paid about half of them. Another 67,000 or so claims were still unprocessed, while the remainder were denied.
On Friday, the department said it paid out nearly $1 billion in benefits from May through Thursday, including standard state unemployment checks, a federal bonus and special federal payments for the self-employed and other nontraditional workers.