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Kokua Line: Hawaii not yet sold on jobless aid that leaves out residents at low end of state benefit

Question: When will we get the extra $400 a week President Trump promised for unemployment?

Answer: The money, if it starts flowing, likely would be $300 a week, not $400, but we’ll get to that. The short answer to your question is: Not right away, if ever.

Hawaii has not yet applied to participate in the federal “Assistance Program for Lost Wages,” about which it has many questions and concerns, including whether the federal funding would flow upfront or whether states could be left footing the bill, Gov. David Ige said at a news conference Thursday.

States have until Sept. 10 to apply, and only three (New Mexico, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania) had committed to doing so as of Thursday, said William Kunstman, spokesman for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. In addition, California said it would apply if the federal government waives an administrative requirement that creates a processing problem for many states, including Hawaii, he said.

If Hawaii ends up implementing the program, payments to eligible claimants would date back to the week of unemployment ending Aug. 1, he said. Based on the initial federal pledge, and if all states participate, the extra assistance might last only about four to six weeks, he said.

Moreover, the “extra” amount claimants would see in their weekly payment likely would be $300, not $400, and some Hawaii residents currently receiving state Unemployment Compensation would not qualify for the bonus, according to guidance provided to the states by the U.S. Department of Labor (808ne.ws/dollet).

Here’s why: This new program requires states to account for 25% of the total $400 benefit, and lets them count a claimant’s current state Unemployment Compensation as the state’s contribution. So if a person receives at least $100 a week in state UC, they would get $300 in federal Lost Wages Assistance.

By contrast, Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation — the weekly $600 federal “plus-up” that expired in late July — was paid to anyone receiving any amount of state UC, which in Hawaii can be as low as $5 a week. LWA is different. This new program defines an “eligible claimant” as someone who “(1) provides self-certification that he or she is unemployed or partially unemployed due to disruptions caused by COVID-19 and (2) receives, for the week of unemployment with respect to which LWA is sought, at least $100 of regular UC” or certain other unemployment benefits, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

Those two rules won’t pose a problem for people on PUA, which pays a minimum $263 a week and requires that the claimant’s joblessness be related to COVID-19. But they are a concern for people on standard UC in Hawaii, which has the lowest minimum weekly benefit in the country ($5) and does not require job loss to be connected to COVID-19.

Kunstman said he did not know the number or percentage of Hawaii UC claimants receiving less than $100 a week. “We currently do not have a way of determining that via the mainframe,” he said.

Updating the UI certification process to include a COVID-19 factor would require changing the claimant filing system, he said.

Another problem is that LWA isn’t technically unemployment insurance, so states that participate will have to build new systems to administer it, in concert with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he said.

It would be much simpler for the states, and therefore for the claimants, if Congress and the White House would reach an agreement to revive the FPUC benefit that expired in July, even at less than $600 a week. “We could get that back going much more quickly,” Kunstman said, adding that it could take weeks or months to get LWA up and running, should Hawaii decide to participate.

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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