State Discusses ‘Soft Reopening’ as Unemployment Funds Dwindle

April 20, 2020, 7:17 PM HST (Updated April 20, 2020, 7:23 PM)
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Hawai‘i may not begin reopening in May as initially planned, but discussions on what a reopening would look like are well underway.

Gov. David Ige in a Monday press conference would not commit to lifting mandatory shelter-in-place and travel quarantine orders on the scheduled end date of April 30, saying the state is not currently prepared. But Alan Oshima, who the governor has tapped to lead the economic reopening and recovery, also spoke Monday and said talks about a “soft opening” are well underway.

The first decision to make is which businesses to open first.

“I asked the Chamber (of Commerce) to poll its members on all islands to understand what businesses might need in terms of lead time,” Oshima said. “Opening up may be more difficult depending on the business … what the new norms are going to be.”

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Plexi-glass safety shields will be installed in some businesses to create a barrier between purveyor and patron, restaurants will have to rearrange to create spacing consistent with social distancing guidelines, and so on.

Oshima didn’t commit to which businesses would open first and allow Hawai‘i residents to return to work, which is more crucial now than ever as bills pile up and the state’s unemployment fund dwindles.

More than $31 million in unemployment benefits was disbursed by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations last week and projections have the fund drying up completely sometime in early- to mid-May.

And many in Hawai‘i still have yet to see a single payment.

Daniel Ikaika Almonte, of Kailua-Kona, tried for more than a month to file online before he was finally able to complete the process last week.

“Meeting requirements is hard because the website is always bogged down,” Almonte said. “I was working two jobs, 15 hours a day and making good money. The state tells me I gotta stop and I can’t even get a cent from the money I’m owed.”

“And I take care of my 71-year-old father, so it’s not just me suffering over their inability to handle things.”

Problems like those facing Almonte may soon be relieved to a degree. DLIR has constructed a processing center at the Hawai‘i Convention Center over the weekend, equipped with 150 work stations, to help process the overflow of claims. To date, more than 250,000 claims have been filed, more per capita than any other state in the US.

Labor unions and state legislators have made efforts to enlist people to man the stations, as only state employees can volunteer due to privacy issues involved in the claims process.

Governor Ige said he expects hundreds of volunteers over the next week. The first of the volunteers will get to work Wednesday. Those interested can volunteer at hawaiiworks.org.

As to the state’s money problems, they should be aided to a significant degree with the arrival of around $2.2 billion in forgivable small business loans via the Payroll Protection Program, part of the federal CARES Act supplying trillions in federal aid across the county.

Roughly 11,700 businesses were awarded loans, Oshima said, and represent about 170,000 employees statewide. The point of the loans is to keep employees on the payroll, though it’s unclear how many of the 170,000 potentially impacted have already been laid off and how many businesses won’t be able to afford to keep, even with extra funding.

“The important thing is that many employees will be covered if they are retained,” Oshima said.

Hawai‘i will still need cash to draw on for those who remain reliant on unemployment benefits. House Speaker Scott Saiki has floated the idea of a federal loan to bolster unemployment coffers until people are able to get back to work and the pressure subsides.

DLIR has reported contacting the US Treasury Department about establishing a line of credit as a stopgap.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.
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