As many as 100,000 residents receiving unemployment benefits are expected to receive $500 in pre-loaded, debit-type cards to be spent at local restaurants, while the state on Wednesday brought on board the first of 200 more agents to handle unemployment claims, including the most difficult cases where people continue to challenge their denials of eligibility.
The newly created Restaurant Card Program, funded through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund, is designed to help people who received unemployment benefits after March 25, along with struggling restaurants and the local farmers who supply them, according to Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai‘i, and Denise Hayashi Yamaguchi, executive director of the Hawai‘i Agricultural Foundation.
People receiving unemployment benefits do not need to apply for the cards and should receive them automatically in the mail in the next few weeks, Menor-McNamara said.
They are non-transferable and valid between Oct. 20 and 11:59 p.m. Dec. 15, she said. The cards can be used at any local restaurant across the state and are intended to cover the total restaurant bill, including alcohol, she said.
Without help, some 60% of Hawaii restaurants say they are expected to shut down for good in the era of COVID-19, Menor-McNamara said.
Every $1 spent at a restaurant translates into $1.82 into Hawaii’s economy and could save 1,000 restaurant jobs, she said, citing data from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.
At a press conference with Gov. David Ige on Wednesday, Yamaguchi encouraged island restaurants to develop promotions to bring people into their businesses to use their new cards.
In a statement, House majority leader Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Moiliili-Makiki-Tantalus) said, “I’m pleased the Ige Administration will be launching this innovative program that will use federal … funds to synchronously support unemployed individuals in our community and reinforce our local restaurant industry.
“Our state is in need of creative solutions like this to reinvigorate our economy and provide much needed assistance to our residents who are currently without work. The Hawai‘i Restaurant Card Program targets relief for both communities that have been hurting due to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
At Wednesday’s press conference, Ige and Anne E. Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, also announced the hiring of 200 new agents to handle unemployment claims.
The first 50 started on Wednesday, 120 more are scheduled to begin on Monday and the rest are expected to come on board by the end of next week, Perreira-Eustaquio said.
Most — 120 — will work on the mainland in a “virtual call center” and are being trained by a mainland company that operates in 13 states and specializes in difficult unemployment claims.
Another 80 will be local residents who will work in DLIR offices across the state, Perreira-Eustaquio said.
The new call center began operating noon Wednesday.
“We do know that there are some in our community who have not been able to receive benefits,” Ige said. “The call center is exciting.”
More than 95% of unemployment insurance applications have been processed and more than $100 million in state and federal benefits are being paid every week to those who are eligible, for about $3 billion, Ige said.
But the newly hired agents are trained to make a determination on the most complicated cases of people who have been denied eligibility — and not merely take a message, Perreira-Eustaquio said.
She called them “those really tough claims” and “the really difficult calls.”
There are currently about 8,000 people “who still need a claim looked at” after initially being denied eligibility for the combination of state and federal weekly unemployment insurance benefits, Perreira-Eustaquio said.
Another group is much more fluid and could have qualified for unemployment one week, then denied during another week for a variety of reasons, including turning down work, being ill, out of town or because they moved.
“That number changes weekly,” she said.
Concerns had been growing among members of the House Select Committee on COVID-19 that Hawaii only had spent 6% of its federal money, which currently comes with the condition that unspent funds have to be returned by Dec. 30.
On Sept. 24, U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono publicly chided Ige to come up with a plan to ensure that all of the federal aid is spent in the islands.
In April the state received $863 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund and Hirono said that $321 million remained unspent and unallocated as of Aug. 31, based on the state’s public data.
Former state Sen. Jill Tokuda, who co-chairs a sub-committee of the special House committee tracking how the state spends the federal aid, had expressed similar concerns that Hawaii risked the possibility of not fully taking advantage of the federal help.
But Tokuda joined Ige at Wednesday’s press conference as Ige announced that 98% of the $863 million in federal funds have been committed to “protect public health, revive the economy and strengthen our community.”
The money includes paying for the new unemployment claim call center and the new restaurant card program.
Any unspent funds will be placed in the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund and used to help repay a $1 billion loan that was secured to pay unemployment benefits to local residents, Ige said.
“The state will not leave any of the federal funding unused as these funds provide a crucial lifeline to our residents and businesses,” Ige said in a statement following his press conference. “We are going to use every penny. I want to extend my appreciation to the House and the Senate for working closely with my administration, as well as the counties, nonprofit partners and businesses that have stepped up to help get this money disbursed into our community.”
The funds, Ige said, already have been committed for:
>> $100 million for rent and mortgage relief.
>> $14 million to bring in nurses and health care workers from the mainland.
>> $10 million for job re-training.
>> $31 million for school devices and connectivity.
>> $61 million for personal protective equipment and supplies for schools, hospitals and businesses.
Unemployment Insurance call center numbers: