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Hawaii Labor Department scraps plan to reopen state unemployment offices, citing COVID-19 spread

  • STAR-ADVERTISER / MARCH 2020
                                The state unemployment office has been closed to in-person appointment since the start of the pandemic.

    STAR-ADVERTISER / MARCH 2020

    The state unemployment office has been closed to in-person appointment since the start of the pandemic.

Hawaii labor officials have reversed a decision to reopen the state’s unemployment offices to in-person appointments starting Sept. 7, citing risks from dramatically higher COVID-19 infection cases statewide.

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced the change of plan today, the same day it had previously announced it would allow the public to begin scheduling appointments for in-person service.

Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, the agency’s director, said increased risks to the safety of staff and customers given the high level of COVID-19 transmission in the community led to the decision to keep unemployment office doors closed indefinitely.

“It’s become extremely difficult to ensure the safety of the community, our customers and our staff as the level of COVID-19 transmission increases within the community,” she said on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s livestream show Spotlight Hawaii. “We will not be opening to in-person appointments on Sept. 7.”

Perreira-Eustaquio said that in-person service will shift to service by phone, starting Sept. 7, as scheduled in advance by appointment.

“We are actually being able to service the same amount of individuals we would have serviced if we opened up the offices to in-person appointments,” she said.

DLIR has kept unemployment offices closed to in-person visits since the early days of the pandemic last year, and has been unable to handle the unprecedented flood of unemployment claims and issues with claims by phone or online.

As a result, thousands of residents who have had difficulty obtaining unemployment benefits have been frustrated by the agency’s operations which have included volunteer call center operators.

Perreira-Eustaquio said the volume of backlogged claims has fallen dramatically, but it has not disappeared despite Hawaii’s unemployment rate falling to 7.7% in June from 14.7% in the same month last year.

On July 21, DLIR announced that starting Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day, unemployment offices would reopen for walk-in claimants in the mornings and scheduled appointments in the afternoons. Appointments were going to be accepted three weeks in advance.

As late as last week, department officials had said they still planned to start in-person appointments on Sept. 7.

The new plan includes expanding telephone appointments from three days a week to five days a week for claimants with general inquiries, and launching telephone appointments for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims and for employer services.

Also, DLIR announced last week that a telephone appointment system for claimants to schedule appointments to speak with a claims examiner would begin operating Monday.

The agency also operates a call center that has been receiving about 500 calls a day, though continual turnover for workers exists there and has kept DLIR in hiring mode to fill positions.

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For more information visit: https://www.hawaiiunemploymentinfo.com/ and https://labor.hawaii.gov/covid-19-labor-faqs/; access to appointments is available at: labor.hawaii.gov/ui/appointments/.

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