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Kokua Line: End-of-job pay in lump sum is best when filing for unemployment insurance

Questions continue to pour in from readers who have lost their jobs. Kokua Line is answering as many as it can, with the help of Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which oversees Hawaii’s Unemployment Insurance system and its federally funded adjunct, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

We also point out-of-work readers to the Hawaii Unemployment Updates & Support Group, a private Facebook group nearly 15,000 members strong. As a large sample of the more than 200,000 people out of work in Hawaii, group members help each other navigate the UI or PUA pro­- cesses and describe systemic dysfunction. As with any private Facebook group, an administrator approves or denies membership. Once approved, members use the group’s search function to find answers by topic. The group’s administrators and many of its members are knowledgeable and seem to work around the clock.

Here are answers from Kunstman:

Question: How will severance pay affect my UI claim, if at all? The owner of the business where I work is shutting down permanently and paying us all from two to eight weeks severance. … It is being paid as a lump sum, not over a number of weeks. We want to know whether we report the severance pay to UI, and if yes, how we report it. Will it affect how much we get from UI or when we are eligible to file?

Answer: “Severance paid as a lump sum would affect benefits for that week of unemployment, but would not reduce the amount of benefits available for the claim. In other words, the person would be ineligible that week, but would be otherwise eligible for unemployment as long as benefits are available either through their regular claim benefit amount or any extensions provided by law, like the 13-week extension (PEUC).”

PEUC stands for Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation, all of which must be received in 2020, under current federal law.

Q: Is it better to get severance and PTO paid in a lump sum or over time?

A: In terms of filing for unemployment, it’s better to get any severance, vacation and sick leave benefits paid out in a lump sum, for the reason explained in the previous question. PTO stands for paid time off.

“Lump-sum payments, including for any benefits, would need to be reported the week received and would not affect (eligibility for) benefits beyond the week of receipt.”

Q: I am self-employed and I hire my wife as an employee. She has been on the payroll, but not in the UI system, because a spouse of a self-employed business owner cannot be treated as a regular employee for UI purposes. My business has been severely and negatively affected by the pandemic and I laid off my wife. I applied for PUA and have been receiving the benefits. In this situation, is my wife eligible for UI or PUA?

A: “The best advice is to have the wife file for regular UI and then UI would determine whether benefits are available under the regular UI program or PUA depending on the facts of the case. If the matter goes to appeal, the individual will be notified by that office of a hearing date to be heard. Notification of the hearing date, place and issues under appeal will be sent to the party and the hearing itself will be conducted over the telephone as it expedites the process. Individuals with questions on appeal matters can call 586-8930.”

Q: How many claims examiners does UI have working now? They need a lot more. Is there any way they can hire more?

A: “Currently, there are 24 claims examiners statewide, an additional 25 volunteers composed of staff from other state agencies and unemployment insurance retirees, and 15 newly hired claims examiners. In addition, the department is in the process of hiring 15 more claims examiners to adjudicate complex claims with due process and appealable decisions.”

Q: I work at a restaurant that recently reopened with the social distancing. It’s not working out so well. Very little business and very low tips. Can I keep filing for UI? Technically I am employed but I am barely making anything, much less than before the pandemic. I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up getting furloughed/laid off again.

A: “Such an individual may be eligible for partial benefits if not working full time, however, if working full time that person would be ineligible. If their hours were significantly reduced or eliminated they would still have benefits left in their benefit year, if eligible.”

So, you won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits while working full time, even though you are earning much less than you did before the pandemic.

Write to Kokua Line at Honolulu Star-Advertiser, 7 Waterfront Plaza, Suite 210, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., Honolulu 96813; call 529-4773; fax 529-4750; or email kokualine@staradvertiser.com.

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