Amid the crush of Hawaii’s epic unemployment crisis, Kokua Line is receiving many questions from out-of-work residents who expected to qualify for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program but were denied or who, conversely, succeeded in collecting PUA only to be told many weeks later they aren’t eligible and must switch to the standard Unemployment Insurance system (where the minimum weekly benefit is $5, compared to PUA’s $263) and repay thousands of dollars.
Other callers say they’ve been unable to access either UI or PUA because they don’t read English well enough to apply online. Readers are asking whether the state is acting lawfully and what they can do. For guidance, we turned to the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii. Tatjana A. Johnson, the nonprofit law firm’s managing attorney for immigration and public benefits, responds to common questions:
Question: I worked both as an employee and independent contractor in the last 18 months. I earned more income as an independent contractor than as an employee. Can I opt to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance instead of Unemployment Insurance because my weekly benefit amount for PUA will be greater than for UI?
Answer: “No. PUA is for persons who do not qualify for UI. … This means that even if you only qualify for the minimum amount of UI … , then you cannot receive PUA based on your self-employment income. Self-employment income is not calculated as wages for purposes of determining your UI weekly benefit amount. Unfortunately, persons with a mixture of employment and self-employment stand to lose the most under the current system.
“PUA is entirely federally funded, which means the state of Hawaii must follow the guidance of the U.S. Department of Labor in administering this program. This includes the rule that if you qualify for UI — even with very low employment wages — you cannot receive PUA. In Hawaii, since many people need to work more than one job to pay their bills, the rule has a negative impact.
“UI … and PUA recipients are eligible for Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, the additional $600 per week in addition to your weekly benefit amount. FPUC will be available through the week ending on Saturday, July 25.”
Q: I started receiving PUA but recently received a letter telling me my benefits were being terminated because I should be receiving UI instead. Now the state says I owe thousands of dollars back for the PUA benefits. My claim for UI was originally denied. What do I do?!
A: “If you receive benefits you are not eligible for it is called an overpayment. Unfortunately, even if the state made an error in issuing you PUA benefits instead of UI benefits, you will need to pay back any benefits received. You should pursue your UI claim, including backdating your claim to the date of unemployment. If awarded UI, the state may reimburse itself for the PUA overpayment through your UI back payment.
“You have the right to appeal any denial or termination of benefits with the Employment Security Appeals Referees’ Office within 10 days of the notice, or 30 days if you have good cause for the delay in appealing. You can appeal through your online account or in writing to ESARO. There will be an informal hearing, where you can make your case about eligibility for PUA and challenge the overpayment. You would need to prove that you were entitled to PUA, not UI.”
For more information about the appeals process, see ESARO’s website at labor.hawaii.gov/esaro/.
Johnson said appeals can be submitted via mail to 830 Punchbowl St., Room 429, Honolulu, HI 96813; via fax to 586-8944; or via email to email@example.com
Q: I can’t speak or understand English. I want to file a claim for UI or PUA, but the application is only available online and in English.
A: “You have the right to an interpreter. The U.S. Department of Labor mandates that all UI offices provide interpretation and provide an alternative to filing a claim for unemployment insurance online. Online claims are useful but cannot be the only method of accessing benefits. The UI Division must provide either in-person or telephone assistance to persons with limited English proficiency and help them with the claims process, including filing an initial claim and weekly claim certifications. UID must identify persons with limited English proficiency (LEP) and provide all vital information about your claim in your language.
“UID is asking persons with limited English proficiency to email dlir.ui. firstname.lastname@example.org. To date, Legal Aid’s requests for an interpreter to this email address on behalf of our LEP clients have gone unanswered. If you call UID and ask for an interpreter and are hung up on, disregarded, or the request is denied, then your rights are being violated. You may file a complaint against UID with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center (808ne.ws/civcom) or you may call the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.”
Legal Aid provides free legal services to indigent people. Call its hotline at 536-4302 during limited week-day hours or check legalaidhawaii.org, which provides information in multiple languages.
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 email@example.com.