The state of Hawaii has tripled its staff to help manage a deluge of unemployment claims that crashed the state’s website and jammed phone lines as people laid off due to the coronavirus-related economic downturn clamored for state assistance.

About 3,000 people applied for unemployment insurance Tuesday, nearly double the entire previous week. Last week’s 1,595 applications were already a 37% increase from the same week last year. More than 1,100 of the claims were on Oahu, which saw about a 50% jump from the same week last year.

“We have never, ever experienced this level of unemployment claims coming in,” said Scott Murakami, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations that oversees the unemployment office, at a press conference Thursday afternoon.

Princess Ruth Keelikolani building. Staff put up a sign that they can’t help sick people at the Unemployment office.
A sign at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations office informs those seeking unemployment insurance that the office can’t serve people who are falling sick. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

More than two dozen people in Hawaii have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19. Gov. David Ige and Mayor Kirk Caldwell have asked bars and restaurants to close to prevent the spread of the virus, forcing thousands of people who work in the service industry out of work. Tourism has also fallen, causing hospitality workers to lose hours or their jobs entirely.

Hawaii’s unemployment office shut down walk-in appointments in an effort to prevent crowds from forming and potentially spreading the virus. But the sheer number of calls overloaded the state system and slowed the website.

“You can be mid-conversation and boom it will just cut you off,” Murakami said, explaining that even he had to use his cell phone to place a work call.

Despite the technical problems, 2,260 people still managed to apply for unemployment Wednesday. That’s more than the average number of weekly unemployment claims any week throughout the past five years.

The state is hoping to implement a series of upgrades, including adding two servers, to help handle the spike in traffic. Murakami said that the state was in the process of modernizing its system but hasn’t yet completed those upgrades. He said the seven staff members in the unemployment office are being joined by 16 staff from other divisions.

Murakami says it normally takes 14 days to process an unemployment application and that the staff is doing their best to handle the uptick.

“We are just so overwhelmed with the number of calls that people are placing in,” he said. “I would apologize in advance if the checks take a little bit longer.”

Some applicants are continuing to go to the unemployment offices even though walk-ins aren’t being accepted. Murakami said people who show up at the offices can’t apply for unemployment but are leaving their contact information so that staff can call them back. People who show up at the office are asked to stand 6 feet apart, per social distancing guidelines.

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