Question: Is the unemployment office ever going to reopen? I have what I am sure would be a simple problem to fix, if only I could get through. I have called so many times. Email is no better. I’m “pending” week after week — no pay! I walked down there one day but it’s all locked up still. What are we supposed to do? I have worked all my life, before this pandemic.
Answer: The director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations made clear Friday that she has no intention of reopening Hawaii’s unemployment offices to in-person visits anytime soon, encouraging claimants who are unable to manage the claims process online to call the department for help. But as you and countless other readers have shared with Kokua Line over the long months of the pandemic, it’s difficult to get through to the Call Center (762-5751, 762-5752), the department’s main number (586-8844) or other published DLIR numbers. On Tuesday, for example, we were greeted by “due to a high volume of calls, your call cannot be connected to an agent” at both Call Center numbers and “mailbox full” at the main number.
You mentioned that email is no better. Actually, it’s worse, DLIR Director Anne Perreira- Eustaquio confirmed on Friday’s edition of Spotlight Hawaii, 808ne.ws/220sty, during which she described overwhelming demands on the unemployment insurance division.
The upshot is that an untold number of people who need help to file an initial claim, or who have already filed online but whose claims require human intervention to move forward — anything from a quick call to correct a simple error to complex adjudication to gauge a disputed claim — are left with few options.
As for what you can do besides to keep calling, advocates such as John Witeck, of the Hawaii Workers Center and the Defend and Respect Hawaii Workers Coalition, have ideas. For one thing, he urges people like you to join with longtime labor activists and community organizers at a rally today to demand, among other things, that the DLIR provide safe, direct, in-person service.
“The current situation is inhumane. We’re nearly a year into this. The system is broken,” he said.
A short rally is scheduled to begin at 10:15 a.m. today in front of Oahu’s unemployment office at 830 Punchbowl St., followed by a march to the Capitol at 10:40 a.m. The peaceful event is to continue at the Capitol from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., he said. Witeck said that participants should wear face masks and maintain physical distancing, per COVID-19 regulations.
He noted that the DLIR’s explanations for the lack of in-person service have varied over the course of the pandemic, focusing at first on health risks but later on efficiency, crowd control and security. He found the latter concern “demeaning and dehumanizing,” reducing Hawaii residents who have exhibited “extreme patience” during long waits for jobless aid to a nameless mob.
It was crowd control and security that Perreira- Eustaquio emphasized Friday when she answered a viewer who asked whether the availability of COVID-19 vaccines for essential workers meant the DLIR would resume in-person service. The answer was no.
Her full response: “I think I’ve said many times that I’m not really concerned about the impact of COVID, per se. I know there are ways to protect our staff with the Plexiglas and the masks. Like everyone says, they do it at banks, they do it at supermarkets. I think our situation is a very different one. Until we can get the workload under control, my main concern is the safety of our staff because of the magnitude of individuals (needing service). You know we’d have thousands of people coming down to these very small local offices. Individuals who are not very happy. They need to be paid. They’re anxious, understandably. They’re upset because they have not yet received their unemployment insurance benefits and (so) it’s the safety of the staff because of the crowds. We wouldn’t be able to handle those crowds. So until we get the workload under control, my biggest goal is to serve as many individual claimants as we possibly can through this method right now (online and by telephone). If we were to take all of our staff and put them on the front lines we would just be handling onesie and twosies of claims and right now we are handling thousands of claims a day, trying to get them assessed and moved on as quickly as we possibly can.”
Later, when someone else asked when an adjudicator would call to resolve a pending claim, Perreira-Eustaquio said, “I can’t give you a time frame.”
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