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‘Likely’ human service furloughs would ripple among those in need

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“Likely” furloughs beginning Dec. 1 at the state Department of Human Services — which helps administer a wide range of social service programs including food stamps and Medicaid — could have “devastating” effects across the islands at a time of increasing hardship triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s going to be devastating,” said state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, who chairs the House Human Services and Homelessness Committee.

At the same time that 10% of furloughed DHS workers themselves could face reduced hours, DHS clients could see delayed services caused by the staff reductions.

And the nonprofit agencies that help new and existing clients are likely to experience a backlog in reimbursements, “which means nonprofits who are relying on state grants for their day-to-day finances are also going to be probably laying off people,” Buenaventura said. “There is a trickle-down effect at a time when we do need services.”

DHS employees help clients with a gamut of serv­ices and programs that are already in high demand, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families; child care; Head Start; employment training; aid to the aged, blind and disabled; Adult Protective and Community Services; case management for elderly victims of crime; adult foster care; Child Welfare Services; foster and adoptive care; the State Children’s Health Insurance Program; funeral payments; and assistance to immigrant children, pregnant women and breast and cervical cancer patients.

Late Monday, new DHS Director Cathy Betts told her staff in an email that she was informed earlier in day “that a likely 10% furlough will potentially be taking effect” Dec. 1. “The State’s financial situation remains dire. Should Congress act and pass the HEROES bill, then this may be avoided. However, given the current state, we must plan for the furloughs.

“I have been provided with very limited information,” Betts wrote. “However, this is what I do know: the plan would be for a 10% furlough potentially lasting the next four fiscal years. Although this is not the final word, I wanted to let you know what is being planned so you are aware. … Many of you don’t know that I came back to work for DHS so that I could improve our systems, so that I could work to ensure employees were happy and retained, and so I could do my best to ensure families are safe and taken care of. I took a very serious oath upon taking this position: that I would protect you and the people we serve. I will continue to do this as we navigate this new reality.”

Both DHS and the Hawaii Government Employees Association union, which represents many of its employees, declined to comment.

As Hawaii’s once red-hot tourism economy now sits idle, Betts’ announcement comes as the need among furloughed and laid-off workers and other residents continues to grow across the islands.

In February, Aloha United Way received 150 to 250 calls per week for referrals for help on its 211 line.

“Now we get more than that in a single day,” said Lisa Kimura, AUW’s vice president of community impact.

And many of the new 2,000 or so callers per week never expected to be needing help until they were furloughed or laid off.

“Sometimes it’s the loss of just one part-time job that means they can’t pay their bills anymore,” Kimura said. “Definitely, more people than ever are saying they never expected to be in this situation — and they’re worried about becoming homeless.”

The bulk of the calls to 211 have jumped from about 30% to 60% for help with housing and rent. Another 30% need health care because they’ve lost their jobs.

“The need is enormous,” Kimura said. “We’re getting thousands and thousands and thousands of applications every day for rental assistance. People are panicked about how to make rent and how to avoid homelessness. It breaks your heart.”

Connie Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Human Services, which runs Hawaii’s largest homeless shelters, said that DHS furloughs likely would mean delays in processing documents and invoices and the execution of new contracts, which have been increasing with additional needs for services.

“It will be very challenging,” Mitchell said. “With COVID we’re seeing the real need for housing assistance, along with all of the other needs that go with it. SNAP benefits (food stamps), processing Medicaid applications, I can’t begin to tell you. It’s just very scary to think about what will happen when basic needs can’t be met. We’ll have more problems with people who can’t make it that causes all kinds of ripple effects, including crime and everything else.”

San Buenaventura praised the work of prior DHS Director Pankaj Bhanot — who left the administration effective Aug. 31 — for updating the department’s technology as other departments, such as the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, struggled under COVID-19.

“The bright side is that before Pankaj retired he updated their IT, which means that we’re able to process all of those SNAP and Medicaid (benefits) far faster than the Department of Labor was able to process all those unemployment applications,” San Buenaventura said. “Nobody complained about any delays on their applications for SNAP benefits and Medicaid.” And children continue to receive federally backed school meals through DHS, she said.

But with the need growing across the state, San Buena­ventura said, many other DHS-related programs that people rely on are likely to be affected.

“It is not a good time, especially for that department when services are needed the most,” she said.

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