As the COVID-19 pandemic drags on in Hawaii, unemployment is spiking, tenants worry about evictions and advocates for low-income people are getting flooded with calls for help.

But the state agency charged with protecting civil rights in Hawaii is closed.

The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission hasn’t operated since March 18, and it’s unclear when it will be back in action. The commission’s staff are considered non-essential, and haven’t been able to work on cases from home in part due to technology limitations.

That’s concerning to Tatjana Johnson, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.

“I think it says something disturbing when the state believes the civil rights office is not an essential service,” she said. “I think the fact that they are shut down shows that the state thinks civil rights are not essential during a pandemic.”

William Hoshijo Hawaii Civil Rights Commission speaks during Panel 1, Hawaii Advisory Committee to US Commission on Civil Rights to hold public meeting on Micronesian Immigration Issues. 20 aug 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

William Hoshijo, director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, says he never expected his office to be closed for this long, more than a month now.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The commission’s director William Hoshijo says he never expected the closure to last for so long and hopes to reopen soon.

The shuttering of the commission happened fast, he says. On the afternoon of March 17, just before Gov. David Ige announced the state’s stay-at-home policy for all nonessential state workers, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations called its division managers into a meeting.

Hoshijo had been grabbing a late lunch that afternoon so his deputy director attended instead. When Hoshijo got back, he found out about the governor’s new directive.

“Between 3 and 3:30 we made the determination that we were supposed to send our workers home,” he said, noting they drew “a distinction between our really important civil rights work and essential health and safety of our staff.

“There really wasn’t an extensive discussion of essential versus nonessential,” he added.

CORONAVIRUS IN HAWAII

Earlier that month, Hoshijo had submitted a memo to the department about how the division could operate during a pandemic, largely based on an assessment done in preparation for H1N1 several years ago.

“What we reported was that the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission could conceivably close for up to 30 days without doing irreparable harm to our mission critical work,” he said. “At the time we were looking at a 15-day stay-at-home directive.”

It’s been more than 30 days now, and Hoshijo says he is trying to figure out how the commission can reopen.

“We do recognize that there’s an urgency,” he said.

Hoshijo hopes to have services restored by May 1, at least on a partial level.

His plan needs approval from the state’s human resources department, he said.

A previous version of this story said the plan needed approval from the DLIR as well.

In the meantime, the commission’s closure has stalled investigations into civil rights violations and blocked people from filing any new cases.

Part of the problem is the commission isn’t set up for working remotely, Hoshijo says. Unlike the unemployment office, which is within the same department, people can’t file civil rights cases online. They have to print out forms and physically deliver or mail them.

“I think the fact that they are shut down shows that the state thinks civil rights are not essential during a pandemic.” — Tatjana Johnson, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii

Hoshijo says due to the confidential nature of cases, staff aren’t allowed to bring any files home or even access case files remotely due to concerns about security.

“We weren’t comfortable with the idea of HCRC employees looking at case files at their kitchen tables,” he said. “But like I said, we’re in uncharted waters now.”

The agency is encouraging people with civil rights concerns to file cases with the federal Housing and Urban Development agency and federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, both of which are still accepting new complaints.

When it comes to technology, “they’re ages ahead of us,” Hoshijo says, adding that he hopes to learn from them.

But those two federal agencies don’t accept all the same types of cases that the state agency does. And some people are less comfortable reporting a civil rights violation to a federal agency than to the state, Hoshijo says.

There’s also a concern about volume. During the federal shutdown, the state received more civil rights filings that normally would go to federal agencies. Now the situation is flipped.

“The EEOC and HUD don’t have the capacity to file all the discrimination complaints in Hawaii,” Hoshijo says. “It’s kind of untenable.”

The closure is also increasing the backlog of cases at the commission. Prior to the pandemic, the state lost two investigators and its backlog started to grow. Hoshijo isn’t sure when he’ll be able to replace them.

Even if the office reopens, it can’t be fully staffed without violating social-distancing rules. Its staff may not all be available anyway — several have been diverted to help the unemployment office, where more than 200,000 people have filed for claims.

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