Sitting on the phone and waiting “on hold” is a classic exercise in frustration. At a certain point — and thousands of Hawaii people have passed it — frustration becomes acutely painful.
That’s essentially what’s happening to thousands of Hawaii’s jobless, though most can’t even get anyone to answer that phone call to the unemployment office. Many have waited in vain for months for benefits to replace income lost through the coronavirus pandemic.
And now, some eight months after the first of the local lockdowns, many have reached the end of their rope with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. The crisis demands a change in operations that affords more direct access to staffers who can help settle claims — with those in the most desperate straits getting priority attention.
Adding insult to injury, these are people who have despaired at even getting through to a real person at the agency, which has been closed off to the public, accessible only online or through a routinely overwhelmed phone bank.
Hawaii taxpayers need some sense of control over their fate, as it’s become clear the current system has failed the people who need it most. Their lack of income, their looming homelessness could do lasting damage to the larger economy as well.
Complaints have swirled around the community for months, but last week some of that angst became visible in a rally, organized by the Hawaii Workers Center, in front of the shuttered DLIR Punchbowl Street office. The demand, a rational one, is for the agency to accept in-person queries from those encountering long delays in receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
DLIR Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio wrote in a letter to the center, which had requested a meeting on the issue, that she would decline the request in order to “direct all available time and resources to resolve claims.” But plainly, that approach isn’t working.
A new call center opened in mid-October, run by a private contractor, to help address the unemployment claim questions. Even for those who manage to get through by phone, some have needs for personal assistance, due to language barriers and other complications of their claim cases.
The reason for restricted access is clear: concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, should the public clientele be allowed to crowd into the claims offices. But surely DLIR can come up with a solution better than this.
Government agencies have found various ways to adapt and fulfill their public service duties while discouraging face-to-face encounters. On Oahu, for example, satellite city halls provide public access by appointment among its options.
At DLIR there are online filing procedures as well as the phone bank, but they long ago proved to be insufficient. The interface can confuse even those with straightforward claims and with no impediments — but they are difficult for many, or simply unreachable, especially if one’s initial filing went awry.
There should be an accommodation that can safely enable claimants to schedule an appointment that can be fulfilled either by a socially distanced in-person visit or through a remote conference online. Even for those who lack the technological means at home, there could be a computer lab at the office to enable the conference.
A countless number of business services offer online help chats, through which a client could at least secure a place in line for their problem to be considered. The fact that many of Hawaii’s jobless are now left powerless, without such options, is inexcusable — especially when unemployment benefits to cover survival basics such as rent and food expenses are at stake.