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Hawaii’s jobless benefit boost may be used up

An unknown number of unemployed workers in Hawaii can expect to receive an additional $300 a week in extra jobless benefit payments — but at least for only four weeks.

The new funding — $300 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — is intended to help make up for the loss of $600 in so-called “plus up” weekly federal unemployment benefits that expired in July.

The new $300 weekly bonus is retroactive to Aug. 1 and may already be exhausted because state officials aren’t sure if they can obtain such funds beyond four weeks.

Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, acting director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said in a Wednesday Honolulu Star-Advertiser Facebook Live conversation that DLIR has been allowed to apply to receive only four weeks’ worth of the new federal/state unemployment benefit.

The $300 bonus was authorized by President Donald Trump via an executive order and is being funded through FEMA.

DLIR has applied for the full four weeks allowed so far by FEMA, according to Perreira-Eustaquio, who said she’s not sure if additional weeks of funding will be available.

The nationwide federal funding requires states to contribute $100 and is intended to last only until Dec. 27, she added.

Perreira-Eustaquio could not say when the money from FEMA should start to flow to qualified applicants because DLIR has to set up a new application and processing program.

“It’s a whole brand-new program,” she said. “We cannot use the same application that was used to pay out the (prior federal) $600 benefits.”

At a state Senate Special Committee of COVID-19 meeting on Wednesday, Perreira-­Eustaquio told committee members “we should be spinning up shortly.”

To qualify, applicants must have been earning enough previously through work to qualify for at least $100 in regular weekly unemployment benefits.

As DLIR works to provide the new bonus, the agency also is working to beef up staffing to help process an expected spike in claims and to resolve thousands of claims bogged down by eligibility problems or other issues.

As of Aug. 19, DLIR had 10,286 unresolved regular unemployment insurance claims that Perreira-­Eustaquio told the Star-Advertiser are mainly caught up in an adjudication phase.

“If it was a clean claim, it should have gone through,” she said. “It should have been paid and they shouldn’t be having any problems since the system is working optimally now.”

DLIR has paid 167,870 regular unemployment insurance claims since March representing about $2.3 billion. The agency also has paid about $580 million on 30,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims, which is a federal program for self-employed workers, independent contractors and other nontraditional workers not eligible for regular unemployment. About 13,800 PUA claims are held up over eligibility issues, Perreira-Eustaquio said.

Many problematic claims have to do with eligibility, such as whether an employee voluntarily left their job, was dismissed for misconduct or did not accept available work.

Such cases allow claimants to contest a denial of benefits, and DLIR originally had 21 staff adjudicators working on such cases. Perreira-Eustaquio said the agency recently added 45 more staffers to help with adjudication and plans to bring on another 30 to 35 workers to help with that and other work.

In addition to these hires, DLIR expects to start training 50 to 60 local lawyers on Saturday to deal with case adjudication as volunteers.

DLIR recently asked the Hawaii Bar Association for that help, and Perreira-­Eustaquio said the response was strong.

“We’re seeing a huge reply,” she told the Star-­Advertiser. “Lots of individuals have volunteered to come down and help.”

In the area of fielding calls from people who have questions about claims, Perreira-Eustaquio said DLIR is working with a third-party contractor to run a call center that could be ready in the next couple of weeks and help relieve county unemployment offices taking such calls.

DLIR earlier this year also had a call center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center staffed by volunteers but that operation was discontinued.

Perreira-Eustaquio told the Senate committee that paid call center employees have replaced volunteers and are “working Monday through Sunday” calling unemployment applicants to clear up problems, but that an unspecified number of applicants do not answer their phones.

“We are trying to reach out to everyone of you,” she said. “We are trying to get your claims cleaned up. … Those calls don’t get answered.”

Perreira-Eustaquio said a new round of hires will come on board Saturday “to clean up those claims as quickly as we possibly can.”

Another area of concern Perreira-Eustaquio addressed at the committee meeting involved unemployment claims by substitute public school teachers.

Perreira-Eustaquio said a “big portion” of Department of Education teachers and administrators applied for — and received — unemployment benefits even though they are paid year-round and were not eligible.

“We made a determination to pay everyone because there was no guaranteed work,” she said. “We have found out from DOE that a big portion of those filers were actual year-round workers, teachers — not just teachers, some administrative staff who are year-round administrative staff that filed for unemployment who really should not have filed because they were not unemployed. So now they have what we call over-payments on their account.”

Perreira-Eustaquio told committee members that early problems in processing the early rush of unemployment claims should be fixed.

“In the beginning, in March, the system could not handle the load,” she said. “… Our system couldn’t take in all the claims, right?”

In addition to a surge in applications, a previous “pdf application form” on the DLIR website compounded problems, which included people inputting incorrect data, such as their Social Security numbers, and applying for benefits multiple times.

“They applied numerous times — five, 10 times — because they wanted to make sure the claim was in. … That really created major problems,” Perreira-­Eustaquio said. “We’re still cleaning up those types of problems, those issues.”

In response to complaints from some senators, Perreira-Eustaquio said any application problems are likely the result of people needing to reset their passwords.

“Problems getting in because they can’t get through the systems because it’s overloaded, we do not have those problems now,” Perreira-Eustaquio said.

She acknowledged that some applicants still may not have gotten their benefits, but said, “We’re working on all those back pay weeks now.”

Correction: Unemployed workers in Hawaii who receive at least $100 in weekly unemployment benefits would be eligible for only $300 in additional benefits through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A previous version of this story reported a higher amount for the additional benefits.

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