As we face a growing pandemic, we want to believe that our government is there to protect us. And yes, our current leaders have made some positive steps: calling for social distancing, promoting general hygiene, providing COVID-19 case updates, and convening task forces of tourism and business industry leaders.

Yet, little has been said about the rest of us — the 48% of Hawaii who live paycheck-to-paycheck for whom even minor work and income disruptions may quickly cascade into homelessness and food insecurity.

Even Bill Kristol (yes, that Bill Kristol) recently tweeted his support for “general relief directly to workers and families,” saying, “the owners of capital have had a good decade and can weather a downturn; it’s labor that deserves a strengthened safety net.”

Our government leaders would do well to listen.

House Chambers Legislature opening 2019.

Hawaii’s leaders must remember to look out for our most vulnerable citizens in this time of crisis. Pictured is the Hawaii House of Representatives on opening day of the 2019 session.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

As legal service providers and community advocates, we think now of our clients and neighbors: working parents with no paid sick leave and who need every work hour to make rent; single mothers without childcare and whose children depend on school meals; people with disabilities who have advocated for decades for flexible work hours and accommodations; and families who have fled disasters to come to Hawaii and are awaiting more secure immigration status.

We call on our government and administrative leaders to ensure that all of us are informed, prepared, and protected as COVID-19 continues to spread across Hawaii. Our leaders must especially look out for those who are most vulnerable to any work, school, and service disruptions.

Our government leaders would do well to listen.

These are not “others” but rather our family, friends, and neighbors. The pandemic will only exacerbate existing vulnerabilities and widen our health disparities and economic gaps. We need bold systemic action by leadership to help us meet these challenges head on.

We offer these immediate actions to minimize the devastating impact that prolonged outbreak and disruption will certainly cause.

Immediate Actions

Moratorium On Evictions – From San Jose, California, to Miami, Florida, leaders are implementing temporary moratoriums on evictions when tenants are unable to pay rent “due to a substantial loss of income related to the virus.”

Local sheriffs and police officers could also commit to non-enforcement of evictions now that a state of emergency has been declared.

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority must also take immediate action on required rent adjustments and suspend all eviction actions until this crisis has passed.

Free Healthcare, Access To Testing – While actions have been taken by private healthcare sites to increase access to COVID-19 testing, more can be done. For example, Washington state’s Insurance Commissioner issued an emergency order to waive co-pays and suspend prior authorization requirements.

Enrollment And Outreach – Again, Washington state provides the example for swift action with a special enrollment period and broad outreach. Protections must be provided for undocumented immigrants seeking health services.

Unemployment Benefits – The simple step of waiving “work search” requirements provides critical support for workers temporarily unable to work due to coronavirus. Business leaders should also pledge to allow sick or self-quarantined workers to keep their jobs.

Paid Sick Leave – Until our state legislators step up, business leaders must act to protect us all by protecting their frontline workers.

Immigrant Communities – Provide translations of essential messaging in the most commonly needed languages. Hire people from those communities to develop appropriate messages and conduct in-language outreach.

Moratorium On Removing People From State Assistance – This includes SNAP, Quest, and other benefits due to lack of response or incomplete paperwork as well as a mandatory extension of all medical re-evaluations required of individuals with disabilities to obtain certain benefits.

Reduce Prison Population – This will help avoid outbreaks that will further strain our healthcare systems. It includes a moratorium on “sit-lie” bans, which gives criminal misdemeanors to individuals who are poor and on the street, often leading to jail time. Also, end pre-trial detention.

In the long-term, we must raise the minimum wage, preserve and expand our public housing stock, legislate family leave and sick leave for all, and more, to take meaningful steps to protect all of Hawaii’s residents.

To be clear, these actions are the floor, not the ceiling. We offer these beginning steps acknowledging that long-term solutions must come from the collective wisdom of many voices — most importantly the voices of those most affected by the hardships to come.

The Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii is a collaboration between the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, and the Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services, a community health center. The MLPC’s Alicia Turlington (medical champion), Fernando Cosio (staff attorney) and Catherine Chen (immigration attorney) also contributed to this Community Voices.

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