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Column: Hawaii’s unemployed suffer as delays persist with governor

                                Volunteers drop food donations into waiting vehicles during a food drive on May 8 at Leeward Community College.


    Volunteers drop food donations into waiting vehicles during a food drive on May 8 at Leeward Community College.

The pandemic has hurt almost everyone in Hawaii. When our state Legislature reconvened in late June, one of its most important priorities was to decide how to spend $635 million in federal CARES Act funding to address urgent needs in our state.

That’s why we were dismayed late last month when, after the Legislature allocated urgently needed resources to help struggling Hawaii residents, Gov. David Ige line-item vetoed $370 million of the allocations, including $100 per week in unemployment insurance “plus-up” payments to Hawaii’s unemployed workers.

In doing so, he further delayed the relief people desperately need now, to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Those “plus-up” payments were meant to partially relieve the blow felt by unemployed workers from the loss of $600 per week in federal “plus-up” benefits, which ended on July 25 in Hawaii. With gridlock in D.C. on another relief package, our state’s unemployed workers and their families are coming to the end of their third week without the extra $600 that has been a lifeline to them and our state’s economy.

How much longer are they supposed to wait?

We all know that our state’s economy is one of the hardest-hit in the nation, due to our reliance on tourism and travel. Our working families are facing some of the highest rates of unemployment, income loss and housing insecurity in the nation due to the pandemic.

There are a host of needs that have resulted from these hits to our economy — housing and food assistance, health and child care, and social services — and dozens of community organizations came together through the Working Families Coalition to develop recommendations on how to use CARES Act state funds to meet the critical needs they were seeing on the ground in their communities.

Those needs have only grown in the months since the pandemic hit, and it is crucial to mobilize resources quickly in order to prevent spikes in evictions, homelessness, domestic violence and serious illness.

For example, Aloha United Way reports that, among those who are requesting assistance due to the pandemic, there is as much need for help to pay for health insurance as for housing. This is likely due to the fact that when workers become unemployed, they also lose their employer-provided health insurance.

The National Association of State Budget Officers finds that states have already allocated, on average, nearly 75% of the CARES Act state funds. With Ige’s veto, Hawaii’s allocated portion has dropped to only 42%. There’s no public plan for over half of the funds, and even more distressing, Hawaii has spent only about 10% of its CARES Act state funds so far.

Any CARES Act state funds not spent by Dec. 30, 2020, will have to be returned to the feds. With our looming budget deficits, Hawaii can’t afford to send any back.

Channeling these funds to working families’ basic needs isn’t just the right thing to do. This type of spending also helps our entire community by supporting local businesses, preventing evictions and foreclosures, alleviating the detrimental effects of unemployment and stay-at-home orders, and ensuring that working parents can get back to work.

Gov. Ige and the Legislature need to feel a sense of urgency and get these hundreds of millions of dollars to those who need it most. They have just over four months left to spend it, and Hawaii’s struggling families literally can’t afford to wait any longer.

Deborah Zysman is executive director of Hawai‘i Children’s Action Network, Josh Frost is a community advocate, and Sunny Chen is executive director of Healthy Mothers Healthy Babies Coalition of Hawai‘i; they are members of the Hawai‘i Working Families Coalition.

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