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At least five state agencies are in need of more staff to help deal with increased workloads related to COVID-19.
But state officials told a Senate committee Friday that they don’t know when they can get extra workers to help out, in large part because there seems to be confusion within the Ige administration over how the collective bargaining law applies.
The senators on the committee already have expressed their frustration with the administration. Last week they were concerned state officials are too slow to identify how many workers are not working — but still getting paid — that can be transferred to the departments that need more staff.
“My concern is the urgency of this emergency does not seem to be felt by this administration,” Sen. Sharon Moriwaki said.
At Friday’s hearing Ryker Wada, the director of the Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development, told the Senate special committee on COVID-19 that the departments of defense, health and agriculture have said they need help. Information on how many employees each department needs and for what jobs was not immediately available.
Two other departments dealing with labor and businesses have previously asked for assistance.
The Senate asked for the number of essential and nonessential employees in early March. Wada said that information, along with job descriptions of employees that could be transferred, should be available this week.
After that, it’s not clear how long it could take for the transfers to actually be completed, partly because Gov. David Ige suspended the collective bargaining law with his first emergency proclamation March 4 and there is confusion over what is supposed to happen next.
Wada and Ige’s chief of staff, Linda Chu Takayama, told the committee they are unsure exactly how to proceed with employee transfers, especially nonessential employees.
“We don’t know,” Takayama told the Senate COVID-19 Special Committee Friday. “That’s something we need to determine, if any additional waivers need to be issued for that purpose.”
Wada insisted throughout Friday’s meeting it’s up to Ige to suspend sections of the collective bargaining law before transferring employees. He said departments have been looking for employees to volunteer for transfer to sidestep being processed under the collective bargaining law.
Takayama also said the AG’s office is still researching what needs to be done in regards to suspending laws to transfer employees.
But the AG’s office, in an email to Civil Beat Friday, said it’s DHRD that needs to take action.
The collective bargaining law is suspended, AG spokesman Krishna Jayaram wrote, “but DHRD has to effectuate the suspension of the portions of the chapter that allow them to do what they want to do. I hope that makes sense.”
The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has previously asked for help to deal with unemployment insurance claims, which are coming in rapidly as businesses shut down and lay off workers.
And the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism will also likely need help administering Small Business Administration loans.
Bill Kuntsman, a labor department spokesman, said in an email that 45 employees from within the department were reallocated to help with unemployment claims, and the department is working with the human resources department on finding employees from other departments to help as well.
DBEDT’s Business Development and Support Division has been the point agency in the state for communicating how businesses can get SBA loans as part of the federal government’s coronavirus relief package.
The health department and defense department are also two of the lead agencies working on the state’s response to the pandemic.
Agriculture Director Phyllis Shimabukuro-Geyser told the Senate committee that her department needs more workers to maintain the irrigation systems across the state.
The department manages more than 89 miles of irrigation systems statewide that feed agricultural lands. Shimabukuro-Geyser said the department already has a small staff maintaining that system.
“If one of the staff were exposed to COVID-19 and would have to go into self-isolation and quarantine, it would affect the rest of the members of the crew,” Shimabukuro-Geyser said. “We would not have the ability to maintain the irrigation system.”
Hawaii’s public workers’ unions already feel left out of much of the government decision-making process involving employees they represent.
The committee asked Wada earlier in the week to report on any meetings he’s had with the unions on the suspension of the collective bargaining law.
Wada said he can’t meet with them regarding that law, because he was not sure if the suspension has gone into effect yet.
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