Voices of the Pandemic: Big Islanders Share Stories of Struggle as Money Dwindles
More than 220,000 people in Hawai‘i have filed for unemployment insurance (UI) benefits since early March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began deteriorating the economy statewide.
While state officials said Wednesday that their beleaguered UI system is now processing 10,000 claims daily, bolstered by multiple new call centers and hundreds of volunteers from the ranks of state employees, the majority of Hawai‘i’s unemployed have yet to receive any benefits at all.
Single mothers, couples and families have been offered reassurances and told to be patient while the state scrambles to navigate unprecedented numbers of applications for assistance despite an outdated computer processing system that is woefully unequipped for the task.
Their stories are all different yet, in some important ways, the same.
Big Island Now spoke to several such individuals over the last week to try and capture the uncertainty of life in the wake of a virus that has disrupted almost every aspect of it.
“I am a single mom and was working two jobs — at a local nonprofit during the day and bartending a few nights a week. I was laid off from both jobs the third week of March. I applied for unemployment immediately but my application still shows as processing when I check my claim status. It has also been incredibly difficult to log in to file weekly certification. I really hope help comes soon. I had a little saved, but I’m about out now. I’ve asked my bank to work with me on my car loan and I’m going to apply for EBT. Just keep hoping to see that check because things are getting tighter by the day.
I’m not really sure what to do at this point, if my jobs will even reopen when this is over. It’s quite overwhelming. I’m grateful that my housing is secure but at some point, it’s going to become challenging to even keep the phone and internet on.”
“My dad was laid off on March 25, right when the stay at home order was being implemented. I immediately hopped onto the website to start a claim and file weekly claims for him.
The first week he was disqualified from getting unemployment money because he made over $267, and my dad only worked for three days that week. He doesn’t make much but was still making enough to support him and his wife. After three days, he gets a letter in the mail saying he has to call the Hilo unemployment office by (a certain) day and time, or his unemployment will be dismissed. I tried calling that number at least 100 times and no answer. I left a voicemail in hopes the office might call us back. Luckily, the next day, they did and unemployment was finally going through!
The initial three weeks of the stay at home order were easy to log in to the website but as more people become unemployed, it was getting harder and harder to log in and try to file every week. So far, I’ve been trying for two weeks and it still hasn’t let me in. I’ve tried logging in when the website first opens and it still says ‘high volume.’ And right before it closes, the same.
At this point, I’ve given up all hope of trying to get my dad his unemployment. He has received his first two paychecks from the unemployment, but they were only $267 each, for a week. It’s not enough to feed my parents, pay their bills, etc. It is now my job as their child to make sure they are still making it in this tough time and can still live comfortably at home.”
“I have worked for a property management company for three years and was unfortunately furloughed. I have applied for unemployment for both myself and my husband. We are not even able to log into the system. We try almost 50 times a day between both of us. No phone calls or emails have been answered. We are forced to stay at home with no … income and no one to talk to.
If we’re unable to receive payment, we will be unable to pay our necessary bills such as rent, electricity and our truck payment.”
Shannon also spoke to whether there was any comfort offered by the extension of an eviction moratorium on all rental properties statewide through May 31, announced by Gov. David Ige.
“Not at all. We love the place we live and if we don’t pay rent, our landlord/homeowner will not renew our lease in July.”
“I filed over a month ago. I have claimed four weeks now and it still shows “pending” on the status of my first and consecutive weeks. I was able to get a part-time job at an animal sanctuary but I am only making about 25% of what I made before.
There are former coworkers who were laid off the same day as me, and who filed within 24 hours of when I filed, who have already received two and coming up on three payments.
I have tried going to the Hilo office, but it’s closed to the public. I have called the Hilo office and the ‘help’ line probably almost 20,000 times and never once have gotten anything other than a message telling me to call back. I tried calling the Governor’s office and Tulsi Gabbard’s office, and nobody has answered a phone anywhere. I have not been able to leave a message requesting a call back anywhere. It’s as if they have all slammed the door in our faces and closed shop.
Catastrophe does not begin to come close to describing the situation that laid-off workers are dealing with in regards to UI.”
Since speaking with Big Island Now earlier this week, Watson received his first call back from a state of Hawai‘i employee regarding his unemployment insurance claims.
“When you call the unemployment office, it’s very difficult to get through. It’s actually impossible for many. I have called over 500 times in a day and gotten a combination of a busy line, an answering machine and the typical ‘the mailbox you are trying to reach is no longer accepting messages.’
The reason I need to speak with a representative? At first, like everyone else, the website was so bombarded that I couldn’t get through to file a claim or even create an account. Weeks went by and I could file a manual online form. I still could not create an account due to ‘high volume.’ More weeks, no email, which I was told I would receive a few days after filing the manual form. I filed again. Weeks went by. I then received a letter in the mail stating that I had been disqualified due to low wages. What? I have made well over the amount that qualifies me, especially during the time of pandemic when the amount has been lowered. The letter told me to email an inbox specifically for disqualified claims. An email a day for a week and still no response. Phone calls every day not just to Kona but Hilo, O‘ahu and Kaua‘i. Hundreds of attempts, no answer.
My last shred of hope is that someone told me they were able to fax a letter and that seemed to expedite the process. I have now faxed a letter and snail-mailed a letter to the Kona office. I have been out of work since March 17 and have not received a single unemployment check or even a sliver of hope that I’ll ever get one. It’s one of the most frustrating, confusing and unnecessarily stressful processes that I have endured. And I know I’m not the only one. I understand how busy these offices are, but you start to (wonder) if anyone works there at all, if the phone lines are ringing in an empty building, if the emails are going to SPAM.”
I think there are a lot of people just giving up because they can’t get through. I had to work so hard to get my UI benefits. When calling, people have to literally call back-to-back like you’re trying to get caller No. 200 on a radio contest.
And the website, they have to keep logging in back-to-back. I’ve seen and spoke to so many people who just can’t even file. This is their full-time job now. They have nothing but time, so spend the time and don’t give up!
I’ve filed every Sunday and got every payment so far, even the extra $600. They can’t give up! Tell them to keep grinding away. I hope everyone makes it through who is entitled to it.”
Russell’s story is one the state has promised will be repeated by each of the more than 100,000 unemployed workers in Hawai‘i still waiting for full benefit payments from the state.
Officials have further assured that even though some may be unable to log in and file an initial claim right away or keep up with their weekly certifications due to digital traffic jams, that full payment will ultimately be rendered to every applicant.
However, Rep. David Tarnas, of Kohala, stressed Wednesday that certifications still need to be filled out by each applicant every week so the payments can be effectively processed and disbursed. If there are website problems that make that impossible for one or several weeks, applicants need to fill out certifications retroactively once they do gain access to the process online.
New portals, separate from the lagging mainframe, are no available on the Hawai‘i Department of Labor and Industrial Relations webpage for filing certifications and checking claim statuses, Tarnas said.
A new system was also recently launched through the federal CARES Act to provide unemployment benefits to those who typically wouldn’t be eligible for them, namely the self-employed and independent contractors. Those interested should visit PUA.hawaii.gov.
Tarnas added that questions can be directed by phone to 833-901-2275 and that all other relevant phone and fax numbers are also available on the DLIR website.