More than 200,000 people have applied for unemployment insurance in Hawaii as multiple industries in the state skid to a halt due to restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

But legal migrants from Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia who lost their jobs faced an extra hurdle: the state’s new web form created to handle the unprecedented number of applications excludes their legal status.

It’s still possible for these workers to apply for unemployment benefits, but they have to go through the original website that has been unable to handle the huge volume of claims. As of Thursday, there’s nothing on the state’s website that indicates that they should apply that way.

Princess Ruth Keelikolani building. Staff put up a sign that they can’t help sick people at the Unemployment office.
Staff at the state’s unemployment office say that they cannot assist people who are feeling ill. They ended walk-in appointments and are urging everyone to apply by phone or online. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Instead, a big green button says: “For New Claims, Please Complete This Form.” Clicking on the button takes you to the new web form, where non-U.S. citizens can only enter their “alien registration” number.

Citizens of Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are able to live and work legally in the U.S. through strategic agreements known as the Compacts of Free Association that give the U.S. military strategic control over much of the western Pacific Ocean.

Thousands have moved to Hawaii and many work in jobs affected by the recent economic turbulence, such as restaurant workers and hotel housekeepers. Citizens of those nations — often referred to as COFA migrants — don’t have alien registration numbers. But that is a required field for non-citizens on the state’s unemployment insurance web form released last month.

The state’s unemployment website urges applicants to click on the green button, which directs to a new web form that doesn’t allow all legal migrant workers to submit their legal statuses. Anita Hofschneider/Civil Beat

Shanty Sigrah Asher first noticed the problem last week while trying to help family members who work at a Waikiki restaurant apply for unemployment insurance.

Asher is a recent law school graduate and a citizen of the Federated States of Micronesia who works at the Honolulu nonprofit Pacific Resources for Education and Learning. With phone lines tied up and no option for COFA citizens on the state’s new form, she has been trying to submit the applications through the original faulty website, but hasn’t been successful.

“Since last week I’ve been constantly not getting through because the system is either crashing or it’s taking too many users,” she said. “It is very safe to expect that many COFA citizens who want to file their unemployment claims haven’t done so because they can’t get in.”

Dina Shek, an attorney and executive director of Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii, said the exclusion is problematic because it makes it appear as though legal migrants aren’t eligible for unemployment when they are.

Shek wishes the state would update the form to add a field for COFA migrants’ legal status, or at a minimum, add some language on their website to make it clear that COFA citizens are eligible for unemployment benefits and should apply through the original website.

“This deserves attention because it’s just the added stress of thinking you might be excluded when you’re not,” Shek said. “I can’t imagine how frustrating that must be when you need to pay your rent and feed your family too.”

The state unemployment office’s new web form currently has no option for legal migrants from three Micronesian nations to fill in their legal status. 

She adds that she appreciates how hard the state unemployment office must be working as they try to scramble to handle this huge volume. But she sees this as yet another barrier for taxpaying migrants trying to succeed in Hawaii. Since 1996, COFA migrants have been excluded from Medicaid and other safety net programs, and for more than a decade were unable to get a normal driver’s license due to a technical problem in the federal Real ID Act.

“We’ve been fighting this for years where we have to fix every single form and every single access to benefits to come out and it’s just frustrating that we have to do this again to make sure they’re not excluded,” Shek said.

Some service providers have found workarounds. Tatjana Johnson, a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, says she and her colleagues started advising migrants to write the number zero in the alien registration field and write in their country of birth.

After their application is submitted, Johnson is advising her clients to write to the state unemployment office and let them know that they don’t have an alien registration number.

Johnson says the limitation is just one of many challenges facing Hawaii immigrants trying to access unemployment benefits, including lack of access to computers.

Bill Kunstman, a spokesman for the state unemployment office, told Civil Beat that applicants from COFA nations should apply through the state’s original unemployment online portal rather than the new web form.

“Trying at dinner time and in the evening are the best times,” he advised, adding that between 1,500 and 2,000 people daily have filed claims that way over the past week.

Still, the new web form is able to handle a much bigger volume.

Asher says she is thankful that the state added the new form but wishes the state would consider updating it to include Pacific migrants. She’s on the board of the nonprofit The Legal Clinic which sent a letter to the state Friday urging officials to address the issue.

“It’s really just inserting that text box. It’s just one text box that will probably allow our people to file that claim,” she says. “This issue is very critical to address and be proactive about because most of our population are in the hospitality industry and restaurant business.”

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