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Kokua Line: States can boost minimum jobless pay so more residents get $300 weekly bonus

Question: Is the extra $300 only for people on UI or will we get it on PUA too?

Answer: The supplemental Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) program will be available to unemployed or partially employed people in several programs, including Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), assuming the claimant is otherwise eligible.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, claimants whose job loss is related to the pandemic should be eligible for the $300 weekly bonus if their weekly benefit amount (WBA) for unemployment compensation was at least $100 a week as of Aug. 1, in any of the following unemployment programs:

>> Unemployment compensation, including regular State Unemployment Compensation, Unemployment Compensation for Federal Employees (UCFE) and Unemployment Compensation for Ex-Service members (UCX)

>> Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC)

>> Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA)

>> Extended Benefits (EB)

>> Short-Time Compensation (STC)

>> Trade Readjustment Allowance (TRA)

>> Self-Employment Assistance (SEA)

Hawaii has been approved for the LWA grant program, but there’s no word yet when payments will begin; they’ll be retroactive to Aug. 1. “The department will announce and post details on how to apply once the program goes live,” the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations says on its website, labor.hawaii.gov/.

We continue to hear from dismayed out-of-work Hawaii residents who receive less than $100 a week in unemployment compensation, asking if there’s any way to include them in LWA.

FEMA says states cannot use CARES Act funding or local funds to “supplement” a person’s unemployment compensation to create eligibility for LWA. Here’s how FEMA spells it out at 808ne.ws/femafaq:

Q: My state is concerned that people who have benefit amounts of less than $100 are excluded from supplemental lost wages assistance. Can a state use money from the Coronavirus Relief Funds under Title V of the CARES Act (CRF) or local funds to supplement the weekly benefit amount for these individuals to raise them up to $100 so they qualify for supplemental lost wages assistance pursuant to the Presidential Memorandum?

A: No. The Presidential Memorandum explicitly provides that individuals must receive at least $100 from one of the listed unemployment benefit programs. Using other funds to pay an amount in addition to the unemployment benefit is not sufficient to qualify an individual to receive the $100 eligibility provision pursuant to the Presidential Memorandum.”

However, experts quoted in national media say there is an alternative: States can “true up” their unemployment systems to pay a minimum of $100 a week, even temporarily, making the infusion part of the eligible weekly benefit amount (WBA) and not an ineligible supplement. Forbes magazine has a roundup at 808ne.ws/forbes.

Kokua Line asked Gov. David Ige’s office and the DLIR whether such a change was possible in Hawaii.

The governor’s spokeswomen did not respond.

DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said raising Hawaii’s minimum weekly benefit amount was a policy question, outside the department’s authority to change unilaterally. In an email, he said that changing Hawaii’s minimum UI weekly benefit amount from $5 to $100 a week would:

>> Require statutory change.

>> Significantly impact the Unemployment Insurance trust fund, including the “recovery of adequate fund balance, aka employers’ taxes, as well as potential interest on federal loans currently only waived until Dec. 31.”

>> Encounter strong resistance from organized labor unless temporary.

>> Run counter to the historical intent of the UI program.

The DLIR doesn’t know how many Hawaii residents will miss out on the $300 weekly bonus because their basic unemployment benefit is too low, Kunstman said.

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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