The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has tweaked its unemployment insurance application process to allow migrant workers from three Pacific nations, who are eligible for claims, to apply using the state’s new web form.

The change isn’t perfect, but it effectively makes it easier for citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia who lost their jobs in Hawaii to access unemployment benefits by giving them the same options for applying as other legal workers.

Hawaii is home to thousands of people from those three nations who live and work legally in the U.S. due to treaties known as the Compacts of Free Association. Many are among the more than 200,000 Hawaii residents who have lost their jobs in recent weeks in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Princess Ruth Keelikolani building. Unemployment office.

The state’s unemployment office is urging people to apply for benefits online.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Migrants were already able to apply for unemployment insurance by phone or through the state’s original online application process, but both methods have been routinely clogged.

That’s why Hawaii officials created a new web form to handle the massive spike in claims last month. The new method is particularly important because the unemployment office isn’t accepting in-person applications due to social-distancing guidelines.

But even though migrants from Micronesia pay taxes and are eligible for unemployment benefits, the web form excluded their legal status. Instead, they were required to input an alien registration number, which they don’t have.

That changed Saturday, hours after Civil Beat reported the issue and state Sen. Glenn Wakai urged the state DLIR to fix the problem.

By Saturday evening, the state updated the form to allow COFA migrants to input their I-94 numbers instead.

The problem isn’t entirely fixed — the web form still only allows people to submit a 10-digit number. Alien registration numbers are 10 digits, but I-94 numbers, which COFA migrants have, are 11 digits.

DLIR spokesman Bill Kuntsman told Civil Beat Tuesday that the state is urging migrants to go ahead and input truncated I-94 numbers.

That’s good news to Shanty Asher, who hails from Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia and works at the nonprofit Pacific Resources for Education and Learning.

She said she and other members of the Micronesian community are thankful to the department and everyone who made the change happen. She emphasized that COFA migrants have always been eligible for unemployment insurance.

“It was never about citizens’ eligibility, it was about a technical issue that was fixed and we’re grateful,” she said.

Dina Shek, an attorney at the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children of Hawaii, is also happy about the change but wishes the agency would add language on its website explaining what migrant workers should do.

“It makes me nervous to have a form that doesn’t fit,” she said. “I think it creates an extra step on the processing side too if they’re having to sort through inaccurate information.”

She is advising her clients to fill out the state’s original unemployment application if possible. That application is tougher to access because it can’t handle a high volume of claims.

Wakai, who is Palau’s honorary consul to Hawaii and spent four years as a journalist in the Northern Mariana Islands, said that he applauds the department for acting quickly over the weekend to fix the problem.

“If you’re that one Micronesian who can’t get access to unemployment benefits that you rightfully deserve that is super frustrating,” he said. “No one is going to be made whole on this (but) at least you’re going to lighten the burden and stress on people’s lives.”

If you’re having difficulty applying for unemployment in Hawaii or other public benefits in light of COVID-19 and want to share your story with Civil Beat, please contact reporter Anita Hofschneider at anita@civilbeat.com.

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