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Editorial | Island Voices

Column: UI still broken as workers look for jobs

  • Sergio Alcubilla is an attorney and board member with the Hawai‘i Workers Center.

    Sergio Alcubilla is an attorney and board member with the Hawai‘i Workers Center.

On behalf of the working families and those still waiting for their unemployment insurance (UI), we wish there was as much attention and energy focused on fixing our broken UI system and getting claims resolved as there has been about “getting workers off the couch” and back to work. There are many factors that come into play that counter this simplistic and insulting narrative, which simply further adds insult to injury.

For months, workers have waited for the state Unemployment Office-DLIR (Department of Labor and Industrial Relations) to resolve their claims if they were mistakenly denied unemployment insurance. These same workers are now being told that they must do a job search and contact three potential employers every week after Gov. David Ige reinstated the requirement.

Yet, questions abound as to who is required to do the job search — and with so many different scenarios involving employers and capacity limits, there is much confusion. Of course, doesn’t this additional requirement add further strain to an already overwhelmed unemployment office struggling to resolve claims? Does this mean that those waiting for months for a resolution, continue to wait even longer?

As people continue to be frustrated with the lack of ability to communicate directly with the DLIR office or are still waiting for their claims to be adjudicated, enforcing this requirement now can only be categorized as out of touch.

With school out and children at home, child care is essential for many of the minimum wage jobs available in restaurant and retail sales. The cost of child care alone is a major impediment, especially for low-wage earners. Still, Ige and our state Legislature decided this year was not the right time to raise the state minimum wage from a paltry $10.10 to $12.

Despite the state Senate passing a bill to accomplish this, the bill did not even get a hearing in the House. Now is not the time to impose more burdens on lower-waged workers when our leaders could not support them in raising the minimum wage. From a market standpoint, it’s not that workers lack motivation to get back to work, it’s because employers need to offer better wages and benefits to compete for their labor.

Further, our leaders and the DLIR have not kept their end of the bargain as they stay silent about the massive backlog and lack of in-person services still plaguing the DLIR.

Thousands have waited for months for a resolution to their UI claims and hold out hope they can speak to someone in person about their case. Instead, they are met with excuses of why UI offices remain closed, ranging from an invasion of bed bugs, to angry crowds.

The Hawai‘i Workers Center believes all workers deserve safe working conditions and with the additional resources provided to the DLIR, it can provide a safe working environment for both its workforce and claimants. As the Star-Advertiser’s May 30 editorial noted, “Other government agencies have resumed face-to-face service and it’s past time for DLIR to do the same.”

Putting blame and shaming workers to get back to work is not the answer to resolving our broken UI system or addressing income inequality in Hawaii. As part of the social contract in our democracy, the governor and the DLIR need to first deliver on what is reasonably expected of them: a fair, efficient and accessible system to finally resolve the UI mess.

It’s time our leaders muster the political will to put our workers first. The Hawai‘i Workers Center believes our low-wage workers deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and should not be shamed for accepting anything less.

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Contributing to this piece was Robyn Conboy, a skating instructor and one of the many workers still waiting to receive her unemployment benefits.

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