Big Island Coronavirus Updates

Tens of Millions in Unemployment Benefits Flowing From State to Workers

April 16, 2020, 6:00 AM HST
* Updated April 16, 1:21 AM
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While tens of thousands of Hawai‘i residents sit restlessly at home, unable to go to work amid fears of coronavirus spread, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) can’t accumulate new staff quickly enough.

Hawai‘i has processed more than 237,000 unemployment claims since March 1, 2020, and paid out nearly $22 million in unemployment benefits between April 1 and April 13 alone.

DLIR Director Scott Murakami said at a press conference Wednesday that he couldn’t produce an exact figure on the number of people in the state currently reliant on unemployment checks.

Looking at the money directly doesn’t tell the tale because back payments and appealed payments are counted in the total cash outflow. The number of claims filed doesn’t provide a reliable picture either, as people must file a claim for each check, meaning many people have filed several claims themselves since March 1.

Murakami said the state is looking at a way to better measure unemployment participants, and not just how many of them there are but where they live and other important factors that could affect state decision making to come. Better data collection and real-time distribution of that data will be crucial to informing Hawai‘i’s plan to reopen the economy, said Carl Bonnham, Director of the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawai‘i (UHERO).

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Among the additional figures Murakami could provide was the $11.2 million DLIR paid out in unemployment benefits over the last week alone — a 230% increase over an average week pre-pandemic. The state paid out almost $5 million more in the first two weeks of April than the entire month of March.

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DLIR’s website traffic has topped out at 700 to 800 visitors per minute, all trying to file their claims at once, Murakami said.

The deluge of assistance requests and resulting staffing needs will be addressed by state employees already being paid to stay home, Major General Kenneth Hara, director of the Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency said Monday. However, paychecks for DLIR work may be lighter than what the reassigned employees are used to lifting.

Union leaders from across Hawai‘i Wednesday said Gov. David Ige has floated a plan that would cut some state employees’ pay by up to 20%, including public school teachers who negotiated raises this year that they now won’t see. First responders, like police and emergency medical personnel, could face pay cuts of up to 10%.

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It’s all a function, Ige said, of a projected $1.5 billion shortfall of revenue over the next 15 months, driven in large part by more than 100 hotels and resorts closing up shop entirely statewide and the dip that will create in dollars collected by way of the General Excise Tax and Transient Accommodations Tax — two huge tourism-based moneymakers for Hawai‘i.

Ige said no definitive decision had been made but added that tough choices loom in the coming weeks and months.

“State government needs to look very differently moving forward,” he continued. “We definitely will have to take action in order to balance our budget.”

Already looking different is the DLIR website, Murakami said Wednesday. Three new elements exist on the page to help inform and navigate:

  • Video and PowerPoint presentations available on how to file a claim for a better understanding of the filing process
  • Three new email accounts, each relegated to specialized areas of expertise to manage and respond to public inquiries more efficiently and accurately
  • A completely separate web service that allows users to type in their names, email addresses and social security numbers for an update on the status of their claims

To file for unemployment benefits or to learn more, visit the DLIR website.

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