Hawaii nonprofits want the state to create an office dedicated to maximizing federal funding in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and adopt a slew of policy changes aimed at broadening the safety net for working families.

More than 60 nonprofits, part of the Working Families Coalition, have signed onto a plan with wide-ranging recommendations for managing the coronavirus crisis in Hawaii, with an eye to helping low-income and vulnerable families.

The group’s biggest priorities are flattening the curve of the virus and providing for food and shelter for Hawaii residents. At the crux of their proposal is the idea that the state and city need to better take advantage of an estimated $4 billion in available federal funds.

A homemade sign on a homeowner’s wall fronting Oneawa Street in Kailua thanks essential workers during the pandemic. Ben Nishimoto/Civil Beat/2020

Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said it would be OK if the state assigned existing workers to that task instead of creating a whole new office, but that it should be a dedicated effort.

“What’s really important is that you have people who are laser-focused on this issue. Our concern is if this is just part of someone’s job it’s going to slip through,” he said.

Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network, noted the state’s bad track record of using federal funding.

While philanthropic funds are helpful as a stopgap measure, “We shouldn’t be using the Resilience Fund for things like emergency food and emergency child care when there’s clearly federal funds for that,” she said.

The coalition is also concerned about a “very closed top-down decision-making process” that excludes important stakeholders, Zysman said.

Thornton pointed to the state House’s COVID-19 committee on the virus’ economic impact as an example of a group that includes a lot of members of the business community but few that represent marginalized communities.

He believes the state’s coronavirus response should include consulting Native Hawaiian organizations, social service providers, immigrant and migrant communities and others.

“I don’t want to suggest that outreach isn’t happening,” he said, but he wants to underscore its importance: “There’s so much urgency and I feel like the consequences are so much more severe if we’re leaving those folks out of the conversation now.”

The coalition’s plan includes policy suggestions that would broaden the state’s safety net to support people like undocumented immigrants who aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance or other support programs.

“The federal government is doing a lot but they are leaving out some of the most vulnerable people in our community,” said Nicole Woo, a policy analyst at the Hawaii Appleseed Center.

Zysman said since the coalition first circulated its plan to policymakers three weeks ago, the state has made progress in increasing COVID-19 testing, acquiring personal protective equipment and expanding child care subsidies for essential workers.

Still, she’s hopeful that more recommendations will be adopted.

Jodi Leong, a spokeswoman for Gov. David Ige, told Civil Beat that he has not yet had a chance to review the coalition’s proposal.

“Please check back in a week or so,” she said.

In the meantime, the coalition is working on a new version of its plan with more specific ways to implement its suggestions.

“The health of our working families is what’s most critical at this time,” Zysman said.

Click here to read the full plan.

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