Manpower Shortage, Hacking Compound Problems With Unemployment Claims Processing

April 22, 2020, 5:24 PM HST (Updated April 22, 2020, 5:24 PM)
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Officials Wednesday continued to blame an antiquated computer system for the plodding process of filing for and receiving unemployment insurance in Hawai‘i, an issue they said was slated to be updated this summer.

The state has recently upgraded its tax system, as well as its payroll system last year, which was so out-of-date it wasn’t equipped to make direct deposits to state employees, Gov. David Ige said. Modernization of the unemployment insurance system was scheduled for July, according to Department of Labor and Industrial Relations Director Scott Murakami, but the COVID-19 pandemic showed up first.

“At 20 years old, it’s beyond obsolete,” Ige said of the UI mainframe.

He added it wasn’t updated along with other systems due to cost concerns. An overhaul of the state’s entire technological framework would cost more than $1 billion, the governor said. The planned UI update for this summer was projected at around $80 million.

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Because of the mainframe’s flaws, the COVID-19 pandemic could not have come at a worse time.

Hawai‘i had boasted the lowest unemployment rate nationally just a few weeks ago, but with tourism now all but nonexistent and social distancing limiting how businesses operate, Hawai‘i is now home to the highest unemployment rate in the country.

Roughly one in three workers in the state are on or have requested unemployment insurance, with more than 250,000 claims filed since the beginning of March.

Strain from that kind of traffic on a mainframe that is decades old doesn’t provide isn’t tenable, Murakami said. Unable to replace the system now under so much duress, DLIR has “built solutions around it.” Workers are focused now on managing the traffic entering the mainframe and verifying claims as quickly as possible.

Verification

Another problem facing Hawai‘i is claim verification, which is also tied to UI mainframe inadequacies. Newer systems can automate verification processes, but the employees who verify claims in Hawai‘i have to physically go in and confirm details like where a person worked and how much money he or she earned.

Graphic courtesy of the Office of the Governor.

Murakami said the department has increased manpower from seven workers in the claims office to well over 100.

Two new call centers opened have opened to help process claims and a third will open Saturday at the Hawai‘i Convention Center.

However, outdated technology will continue to prove a problem even with system workarounds like call center buildouts.

The computers at the state’s disposal aren’t “the latest and greatest,” Ige said. They vary in both age and quality, meaning the process will be slower in some cases due to equipment deficiencies.

Hacking

Murakami also noted that outside factors have caused problems for the system. At some point last week, he said, DLIR began to notice a higher number of unique logins to the system than made sense. It turned out to be hackers.

The state brought in a consultant, who found that bots and scripts would log into the portal and loiter, using up bandwidth and making it harder for real users to access the system.

Forensic data has been collected and submitted to the Hawai‘i Office of the Attorney General in an attempt to seek prosecution, he continued.

The money will come

Murakami assured Hawai‘i’s workers that no matter what problems DLIR encounters or how long it takes, every person will be paid for every week they’ve been unemployed.

“You may not get all of your back payment upfront,” he said. “If you don’t, you can email the back payment group and we will make sure that your entire benefit gets paid.”

Missing a weekly deadline does not disqualify a person from receiving payment for that week, but filers are required to certify. Murakami compared certification to filling out a weekly time card. Once you’ve filed your claim, you’ll then need to complete a certification.

That certification process repeats every week and is necessary to receive benefits. However, the governor has temporarily waived requirements that claimants must continue to seek employment and meet with at least three potential employers weekly, as social distancing and job availability don’t render such actions safe or likely to produce results.

Graphic courtesy of the Office of the Governor.

Filling the unemployment application out accurately is also crucial to receiving timely payments. The first benefit check can become available 15 days from the filing if no mistakes need to be ironed out.

Those who struggle to gain access to the state’s UI system or who haven’t been paid yet don’t need to worry about if they will receive their money, Murakami said. The system doesn’t operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Unemployment insurance never paid out more than around $650 per week to anyone who filed and those guidelines will remain the same during the pandemic, no matter how much a person earned before ending up on UI. However, federal plus-up money, which adds an extra $600 in benefits, is now online. Murakami said filers will begin to see those funds in their accounts as of Wednesday.

As for running the state’s UI fund running out of money, Murakami said there’s nothing to fear. At the end of February, the state had $596 million in the fund but has been paying out claims at a high rate ever since. Around $11 million was sent out on Monday and Tuesday alone, he continued.

However, the state put in for an interest-free loan until Dec. 31 with the US Department of Treasury, which Murakami said functions as a line of credit. That is how Hawai‘i will fund unemployment insurance, along with the usual stream of tax dollars from those who continue to work.

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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