More than 700 state employees are collecting paychecks while sitting idle at home. This despite some agencies taking on increased workloads during the coronavirus outbreak.

That news was the latest development in an ongoing saga between the state Department of Human Resources Development and a panel of state senators, who have become increasingly frustrated with DHRD Director Ryker Wada in the last two weeks.

And there’s still no timeline for when the overburdened agencies might get some relief, or what kind of help most of those agencies actually need.

The 706 workers include various office assistants, clerks, secretaries, laborers and investigators. They were forced to stay home when Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation March 17 that mandated state departments only keep essential workers on the job.

There are more than 65,000 public employees in Hawaii.

More than 700 state employees are still on payroll but not working as they wait for reassignment. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2016

The biggest point of contention has been DHRD’s apparent slow speed in gathering data on nonessential workers and working with other departments to reassign them.  

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has been hit particularly hard by an influx of unemployment claims as businesses have reacted to the virus by laying off workers or cutting hours. 

“There’s lots of people out there that lost their jobs, can’t get unemployment, and they see we have state workers getting paid and not doing anything,” Sen. Donna Kim told Wada during a meeting Wednesday of the Senate special committee on COVID-19.

In early March, Ige asked each department to divide their employees into three categories: essential workers, nonessential workers that can work from home, and nonessential workers that cannot work from home.

Of the 706 nonessential state employees who could not work at home, 241 worked at state libraries. 

The Attorney General’s Office had 171; the Department of Defense, 110; the Department of Accounting and General Service, 46; the Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism, 9; the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, 3; the Department of Human Services, 43; DHRD, 2; the Department of Health, 28; DLIR, 24; and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, 29.

The Department of Education wasn’t solicited for the count, Wada said. He did not say if the Department of Agriculture had nonessential employees.

Wada said DLIR is in need of about 50 more workers to assist with a call center and filings for unemployment claims. He told the committee that the employees should be reassigned by Friday.

Wada said that DLIR will be the first department to get extra workers because it is the furthest along in DHRD’s requisition process.

The DOD, DOH and Department of Agriculture previously requested assistance. DBEDT also asked the senators for more workers to help with small business loans.

WAM Chair Sen Donna Mercado Kim as she listens to UH VP of Budget and Finance Kalbert Young during presentation to the WAM committee.
Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz and Donna Mercado Kim are part of a Senate panel that’s becoming frustrated with the state’s slow progress on reassigning nonessential employees. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

However, those departments have not yet responded to Wada’s inquiries into how many workers they need and what the job duties would be. 

“You tell us, if you can’t get it done we’ll try to help you get it done because I’m not sure what the issue is,” Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz told Wada.

 “If the departments are more inclined to answer the requests from this committee, the help is welcomed,” Wada replied.

The committee also was frustrated when Wada did not provide other data they’d previously asked for. On Wednesday, he did not have job descriptions available for the 706 nonessential employees nor did he get explanations for why they could not work remotely.

Last week, DHRD was not able to provide the number of workers in each category when the Senate committee asked. Reassignments were previously stalled because of confusion between DHRD and the governor’s office on how the state’s collective bargaining law applies.

Wada said Wednesday that it’s up to Ige to decide when the reassignments should happen. 

The governor said during an afternoon press conference that the reassignments could happen as early as Monday.

Ige said that his administration is still in talks with the public workers unions regarding the reassignments.

Wada also said earlier in the day that DHRD is communicating with unions.

“I don’t want the administration to use this as an excuse to not be doing what they should be doing,” Kim told Wada during the Senate hearing.

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