Question: Why are no unemployment offices open for in-person visits in Hawaii, even by appointment, and even on the neighbor islands where there are fewer claimants and fewer cases of COVID-19? Other states have managed to keep their unemployment offices open, albeit on a limited basis in some cases. In-person service is vital, especially in the case of ID verification.
Answer: Gov. David Ige said Thursday that unprecedented demand for customer service amid mass unemployment; the need to deter crowds to suppress viral spread; and threats against employees of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Unemployment Insurance division all contributed to the decision to suspend in-person service in March. Claimant filing and customer service are done primarily online and over the phone.
The pandemic and subsequent mass unemployment forced UI staff to try to “reorganize all of the work that they do and set up alternatives to be as efficient and safe as possible,” Ige said, adding that some UI staff had been threatened.
We asked whether these were current threats, but he had few details. Our follow-up with Hawaii law enforcement agencies found only one active case, on Kauai.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation, state Department of Public Safety, Honolulu Police Department, Maui County Police Department and Hawaii County Police Department each told Kokua Line they were not investigating any threats against DLIR staff. HPD did have a vandalism report at 830 Punchbowl St. (Honolulu’s unemployment office) and is investigating reported claim fraud, “but no threatening-type cases,” said spokeswoman Michelle Yu.
Kauai County Police Department was the exception, saying that “KPD has had one report of an incident regarding a DLIR employee who was threatened. According to a preliminary report, a DLIR employee received a threatening voice mail on Friday, August 21. The caller threatened the DLIR employee that they would receive severe repercussions if the caller’s unemployment benefits were not reinstated. This remains an ongoing investigation. No arrests have been made at this time.”
Countless readers have contacted Kokua Line over the past few weeks saying DLIR should restore in-person customer service, even by appointment only, as Honolulu County did at its driver’s license centers and satellite city halls. Many understood why unemployment offices were closed initially, because the rush of people needing help filing initial claims was too great and the coronavirus was not well understood. But as the months have passed, most claims are being resolved online or over the phone, presumably leaving a smaller pool of people who need help in person, commonly because they can’t navigate the online system, need language assistance or lack computer access. Plus, these readers say, people have adjusted to wearing face masks and maintaining social distance to accomplish essential tasks.
Many of these readers were aware that then-DLIR director Scott Murakami publicly raised security concerns in May, including that staff were threatened; he said the department needed money to beef up security for the offices to reopen. Murakami took leave in June, and resigned earlier this month. Readers don’t doubt that the DLIR offices need to boost security, but they insist that it can be done and that perceived threats should not outweigh the need to fully serve the public.
One last point: Anne E. Perreira-Eustaquio, the DLIR’s acting director, said that while ID verification had slowed down the processing of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, the process is much quicker now that the department is using predictive analytics to assess the likelihood of fraud, which has plagued this new, federally funded program for the self-employed and others not eligible for standard UI. When we spoke Thursday, she said the department had cleared 10,700 PUA claims in the past two weeks.
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.