As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Hawaii’s unemployment application system has frustrated thousands of residents.

Even computer-savvy millennials have spent hours and days struggling to apply and confirm every week or two weeks that they’re still out of work and eligible for the money.

The state added a new web form last month to help process the spike in applications and multiplied its staff to handle the work. That’s allowed thousands to apply, and now about a quarter of a million applicants have filed for help.

But even though Hawaii has paid out more than $89 million in unemployment insurance this month, many of the people who may be most in need are missing out, according to advocates for low-income and immigrant communities.

“It’s already a cumbersome process. It’s understandably a complicated process but our most vulnerable workers in Hawaii are the ones who are most affected and least likely to be able to get access to it,” says Dina Shek, executive director of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii.

Department of Labor and Industrial Relations employees and staff from other state agencies helped process unemployment claims at a large center set up at the Hawaii Convention Center last week.

Hawaii Department of Transportation

Undocumented workers aren’t eligible for unemployment benefits at all. But even workers who are eligible for unemployment benefits can’t equally access the system.

There are only two options for applying for unemployment — call or file online. That works for a lot of people with the patience to get past the state’s faulty systems.

But it is a lot harder for immigrants with limited English proficiency, people without access to computers and residents who lack bank accounts.

Part of the problem is that the unemployment office is closed to the public in an effort to maintain social distancing and prevent the spread of the virus. That means workers who don’t have access to computers or internet access can’t go into the office in person and get help or use the state’s computer terminals.

Public libraries are closed too, preventing people from using their public computers. Even though the phone lines are still open, many workers trying to call say the lines have been consistently busy.

Hawaii is seeing historic unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hawaii Unemployment Office

Barriers For Non-English Speakers

Immigrants and migrants are also at a disadvantage.  The new web form — created as a workaround for the original application website after it proved unable to handle the increase in web traffic — originally excluded legal migrant workers from three Pacific nations.

The state has since fixed that, but advocates fear that error led some to mistakenly believe that they weren’t eligible for unemployment at all.

The new unemployment application web form also makes inputting a bank account number and routing number mandatory — even though having a bank account isn’t a requirement to get unemployment. That’s confusing people who are eligible for unemployment and aren’t sure what to do when they can’t submit their applications.

12 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Attorney Dina Shek of the Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawaii says that the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges with accessing Hawaii’s unemployment system.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The new form is only in English. The state’s original unemployment application is available in both English and simplified Chinese. But that version can’t handle the huge amount of traffic generated by thousands of applicants.

People who can’t speak English are trying to call the office for help and advocates say many aren’t getting through.

Tatjana Johnson, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, says that pushing people to use an online system instead of accommodating them in person or over the phone discriminates against people who can’t access the website.

“Language access has been around for many years, it shouldn’t be a problem now,” she said. “There’s no excuse if someone calls and they’re saying they need an Ilocano interpreter, they (the state) need to get someone on the phone.”

The problem doesn’t just happen when people are trying to apply for unemployment benefits.

It recurs, weekly or biweekly, because every recipient needs to certify that they are still unemployed in order to continue receiving money.

Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which oversees the unemployment system, says the state can’t waive that requirement because the state has a duty to ensure that the money is going to people who aren’t working.

Shek says that even before the pandemic hardly any of her clients were applying for unemployment because the process was so challenging. Now they have no choice because they can’t easily get another job.

“These are vulnerabilities in our system that have existed long before the pandemic and it’s just made even worse now because people have no choice but to access these systems,” she says. “Now they absolutely need these benefits. These benefits are a lifeline.”

More Interpretation Needed

Philios Uruman has been helping interpret for his family members since he moved to Hawaii from Chuuk, one of the four states in the Federated States Of Micronesia, at the age of 11.

Now he works as a professional interpreter and has been trying to help Chuukese community members who lost their jobs at hotels and restaurants apply for unemployment.

After the first person asked him for help, Uruman went to the state’s unemployment website and scrolled down.

CORONAVIRUS IN HAWAII

There, at the very bottom, are links to one-page websites in Ilocano, Tagalog, Chuukese, Marshallese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. But these one-page descriptions are outdated. They urge people to go to the state unemployment office — which is closed — or to call for an interpreter.

“We’ve been calling and they don’t answer,” Uruman told Civil Beat. “I just called them yesterday. Nobody answers still.”

State officials recommended people try to access its original unemployment application in the evening, so Uruman has stayed up late trying to get it to work. He says fixing unemployment is the biggest problem right now facing his community.

“I’m just so worried with all these barriers that they have to go through and being unable to use a computer, or not able to access one, they’re not going to be able to pay their rent if they don’t get unemployment,” he says.

“That’s what worries me the most: families not able to support themselves because all these services are not available.”

The state created a new email address for people who need language interpretation.

Kunstman of DLIR says that anyone who needs help should email dlir.ui.languageassistance@hawaii.gov and their claims will be handled by the Hilo office.

People can also get their claims backdated by emailing dlir.ui.backdate@hawaii.gov and contest a disqualification by emailing dlir.ui.disqualified@hawaii.gov.

But Kunstman says the unemployment office doesn’t have interpreters on staff although some staff members speak more than one language. The state relies on a phone interpretation service called CTS Language Link based in Washington state that helps people fill out the unemployment application over the phone.

“The person is still filling out the application themselves but they’re getting it translated in real time over the phone,” he says.

Sometimes interpreters aren’t available right away and people have to call back for later phone appointments.

“I’d be surprised if they had somebody who spoke Tongan right away,” Kunstman says.

Computer Savvy Needed

Even using a translator still requires that people have a computer, and not everyone does. About 10% of Hawaii households lack computers, and about 17% lack broadband, according to the U.S. Census.

Not everyone has a bank account either, and the state unemployment office can and does send checks to people who lost their jobs instead of giving them a direct deposit.

But by requiring people to input bank account numbers and routing numbers, the state’s new web form effectively discourages people who don’t have bank accounts from applying using that method, which is for many the quickest and easiest way to get help.

The other options are to try to call the office and hope you don’t hit a busy signal or apply using the original unemployment application website, which can’t handle the huge traffic.

About 4% of Hawaii residents lack bank accounts, one of the lowest rates in the nation, according to 2017 survey data from the FDIC.  But nationwide, people who lack bank accounts tend to be among the poorest and least educated, and are far more likely to be members of communities of color.

Johnson says she has been telling her clients to just input the number zero and email the unemployment office about the lack of the account.

Kunstman said people should “procure a debit card at a store” to get an account and routing number.

“We have been recommending the cash card for the ‘unbanked’ for a long time because we want at all costs to avoid issuing cash checks through DAGS,” he said, referring to the state Department of Accounting and General Services. “That’s more load on the mainframe.”

Shek understands that the unemployment agency is working hard to fix the problems and facing unprecedented challenges. But she says advocates are “kind of learning on the fly and informing each other rather than feeling that DLIR has been responsive to addressing those challenges.”

“I’m sympathetic but these are problems that have existed long before the pandemic, just made a 100 times worse in this situation,” she says.

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