Frustrated with not being able to get questions answered by unemployment officials over the phone, protesters held a sign-waving rally Thursday in front of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations headquarters.
The rally, organized by the Hawaii Workers Center, called on the department to open its office to answer questions in person, and to assist thousands who are experiencing problems or long delays in receiving their unemployment insurance benefits.
“The crisis is growing for a lot of people,” said the center’s steering committee member, the Rev. Sam Domingo. “This unemployment filing is an essential service. It’s like groceries and pharmacy. It’s like going to the bank and getting money, or the credit union.”
Behind them the double glass doors to the DLIR office were papered over with the words, “BUILDING CLOSED,” in red letters at the top. Another sign taped to the front of the doors offered a phone number for unemployment insurance claim filing and another for general questions.
DLIR Director Anne Eustaquio declined to comment on the rally in response to an email request Thursday from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
On Oct. 21 the Hawaii Workers Center requested a meeting with Eustaquio, but she declined, saying in a letter to the group that the most effective way to address their concerns was for the DLIR to “direct all available time and resources to resolve claims, and for this reason, I must decline your invitation.”
Rally participants stood on the lawn in front of the DLIR office on Punchbowl Street, chanting, “What do we want? Claims paid. Now.”
Domingo said it has been particularly challenging to navigate the unemployment filing process for unemployed workers who do not have access to computers or who are not proficient in English. In addition, many are unable to get through to someone on the phone or get a response via email.
Some have become homeless while waiting for benefits to be paid. Domingo said he sees no reason why banks are open but the labor office is not.
A new call center, recently established in mid-October and run by a private contractor to help field Hawaii unemployment claim questions, has not been much help, either, he said. It is run by an outside company that has no clue how to deal with “our cultural challenges here in Hawaii,” he said. Many people who have called in have still been unable to get an update on their claim status.
“So we’re really wanting some in-person kind of accessibility on the part of the Department of Labor,” he told the Star-Advertiser. “We feel like this is so important, especially for a lot of these folks who have been hung out there for months.”
A former security guard named Jimmy, who declined to give his last name, said he has been living in his car since April. He does not know how to use a computer, so he asked a friend in the Philippines to go online and help him file a claim.
But now the unemployment office thinks he was not in Hawaii at the time, when he was. He has been unable to reach anyone at the unemployment office to explain this, to answer questions or to resolve the problem.
Misty Pegram of Waipahu said her mother, who was a full-time Uber driver, got the runaround when trying to file for unemployment when the pandemic hit in March. First she was denied, then directed to the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and then told she did not qualify.
She called hundreds of times, trying to find out why she did not qualify, but was never able to get through. Finally, with the assistance of a webinar organized by Hawaii Workers Center, she learned that she should reapply for regular unemployment.
“There are countless stories like that,” said Domingo. “These are not just low-wage workers. They’re all stripes of workers who have not been able to get any sense of whether their claims are justified.”
Domingo said DLIR needs to reopen direct, in-person filing of claims at DLIR offices and at community sites, with both language and computer assistance, and improve their communications with applicants.
DLIR should also have hired more adjudicators, or people who specialize in investigating and resolving eligibility issues, much sooner, he said.
Lisa Grandinetti, an organizer for UNITE HERE Local 5, which represents hotel workers, said thousands of its members are unemployed. Hundreds are also in limbo, with claims pending, and a small group of members has not been paid since March.
“People are calling hundreds of times, over days, sitting at their phone, and they still aren’t getting answers,” she said. “Even when they get through, the subcontractor workers at the call center aren’t helping at all.”
In the meantime, she said, members are struggling to figure out how to pay for rent, food and medical coverage.
In her letter to the Hawaii Workers Center, Eustaquio said, “We at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations truly hear the frustration and concern of those who are seeking to obtain unemployment benefits. There are many complicated federal requirements and processes that the DLIR must follow or it risks losing its ability to receive federal funds for the Unemployment Insurance Program.”
Eustaquio said DLIR has hired about 50 new employees and contracted 100 more adjudicators, who already have made progress in resolving claims, and that the DLIR believes, taking the health and safety of everyone into consideration, that it can be most effective in the provision of services “under the current arrangement.”
“We continue to evaluate the situation and will provide in-person services when it is determined that we can do so in a safe manner and more effectively,” she said.
The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for Hawaii in September was 15.1%, up from 13% in August, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In late September DLIR said it had paid out $3.3 billion in benefits since March.