Nearly a decade ago, as Hawaii climbed out of the Great Recession, some state officials sought to create an IT system that would make it easier to apply for government benefits — including unemployment insurance — during tough times.

Specifically, they aimed to create an online portal, shared across multiple agencies, where locals who needed food and financial assistance, job training, child care and other programs could apply.

It would replace the bevy of disparate state applications that often make access to those programs daunting and cumbersome for residents. It might also come in handy the next time the Aloha State faced a crisis involving widespread unemployment.

That next crisis has arrived, but the portal never materialized.

Antiquated information technology used by the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has created a huge backlog of unpaid unemployment claims.  The state never applied for a $12 million grant to build a system that would have streamlined the process for many state agencies. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“We tried, and the agreements couldn’t be made, so the idea died on the vine,” recounted Stan Fichtman, a former employment analyst at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Workforce Development Council.

Now, Hawaii is awash in the largest jobless numbers the islands have ever seen. Demand for social services across the state is already on the rise.

Some involved in the portal effort years ago say it would have helped to better manage the current crisis had the state agencies involved bought in and followed through.

“The idea was to remove the burden of showing up to the agency to prove who you are,” said Gauhar Nguyen, a local grant writer who worked on the project.

But the way key officials who needed to buy into the idea swiftly dismissed it is “indicative of how the whole IT system has been treated” in recent decades, she said recently.

“We need the whole state IT to actually be in the 21st century.”

An Ambitious Undertaking

In 2011, DLIR contracted Nguyen to help the state compete for a $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor. The money would help create the portal.

The goal was ambitious for Hawaii: A uniform portal regardless of state agency — whether that was Labor, Health, Human Services or others — in which applicants enter their information and the system could then see what they qualify for.

The system could then refer applicants to the proper agencies, said James Hardway, former executive director for the Hawaii Workforce Development Council.

“There are all these silos in state government, and everyone is spending an exorbitant amount of money” managing their respective clients and cases plus reporting back to the federal government, he added. “Why don’t we just pay for one?”

“We need the whole state IT to actually be in the 21st century.” Gauhar Nguyen, local grant writer

There were concerns about keeping sensitive data private within the different agencies, but those could be addressed, Hardway said.

Such a streamlined system, he and others said, could save the state money in the long run and be easier for Hawaii residents to use.

The concept went beyond just convenience and saving money, however. Community advocates say such a portal would address social inequities, too.

During the recession “it became very clear to all of us … that there are real challenges in accessing government funds that were available to help people get through it,” said Kelvin Taketa, former executive director of the Hawaii Community Foundation.

“The biggest issues of all were that the process itself was cumbersome. (Agencies) could’ve been more streamlined in the way they made the application forms for people.”

For example, residents in rural Hana are at a disadvantage if they have to drive about two hours to an office in Wailuku to apply in person, Taketa said.

A decade ago, “Hawaii left a lot of money on the table,” he said.

Now, “here we are — and people are scrambling.”

Too Much ‘Territorial-ness’

Nguyen was “one of the best in town” for grant-writing, Fichtman said. “We just needed that much muscle to get this out — it was a pretty ambitious proposal.”

Nonetheless, the state never applied for the grant they hired her to pursue.

“I thought we had significant movement,” Hardway recounted last week. The issue wasn’t the department heads, he said. At project meetings, “the issue really came down to whoever was the head of that particular branch or division.”

Several meetings with officials from the state’s health, labor, human services and IT departments, plus the University of Hawaii system and other agencies, were held but they didn’t result in action.

There was a “territorial-ness” of people operating in their own silos, he added. “You do sort of get this, ‘This is the way we’ve done it for 50 years.’ It becomes hard to move that bureaucracy.”

Unemployment Claims Included

Creating such a “one-stop-shop” portal was ambitious — but it would not have been unprecedented within the United States.

Hawaii’s proposed portal idea was modeled after other states that had developed similar one-stop online application systems, such as Pennsylvania’s “Compass” portal.

The Keystone State launched Compass in 2000. “It was about moving toward a system that makes services available to more people,” said Lisa Watson, Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary for Human Services.

Applicants can access Compass to apply for federal aid, school meals, health programs and multiple other social services. In 2016, Compass launched an app so that users could upload the documents required to secure benefits using their phone.

Local residents waited patiently in a long line that wrapped around the block to receive food at a distribution event by the Na Kupuna Makamae Center, in Honolulu, HI, Friday, May 8, 2020. The weekly project is the result of a partnership between the Pacific Gateway Center, Aloha Harvest, and Help is on the Way organizations. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Thousands of Hawaii residents are in need of government assistance during the pandemic but the state’s outdated IT systems hamper getting needed services. Here, people waited in line for hours at Na Kupuna Makamae Center for food distribution. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

“It really just allowed more people to have access to it, and it made it more convenient,” Watson said.

Compass is solely for Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services. The Hawaii application portal, however, was envisioned to include numerous state agencies.

Notably, the Hawaii portal sought to incorporate the unemployment insurance applications that are currently causing widespread anxiety and frustration across the state — largely due to the state’s antiquated 1980s-era mainframe.

The Labor Department in 2012 encouraged the candidates for its grant money to propose how they might “shorten durations of unemployment of UI claimants” using “the creative use of technology and integrated service strategies.”

DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said the Labor Department grant would not have brought about the overhaul that Hawaii’s obsolete unemployment IT system desperately needs. The funding for that modernization, he said, comes from a different federal budget pot.

Nonetheless, Nguyen said the grant and the portal it aimed to create could have improved the unemployment application process, to help ease some of the widespread frustration and anxiety seen today in Hawaii.

The grant application, she pointed out, called for “braided” funding. It looked to combine different funding categories and use them on “unified initiatives.”

Braided funding aims to produce “greater strength, efficiency … and effectiveness,” the 2012 grant language stated.

The language also stated that 37 million people in the U.S., facing “a range of employment challenges,” were served by workforce programs coming out of the Great Recession.

That shows state officials were warned of what they might face in the future — and that they could have taken action before this new, massive wave of unemployment, Nguyen said.

“Don’t for a second believe that the current volume of unemployment claims was unexpected,” she added in a tweet last month.

Applications On The Rise

Meanwhile, Hawaii’s Department of Human Services, which oversees numerous health and welfare programs, reports an increase in applications since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The agency received nearly 4,000 applications for food and financial assistance between April 21 and May 1.

Food Bank Distribution Leeward Community College Coronavirus Volunteer
Beyond the soaring number of claims for jobless benefits, applications for state food assistance and health programs are soaring. In this photo, a volunteer packs a truck bed at a food distribution center at Leeward Community College. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Total recipients of Hawaii’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps — grew from 153,600 in January to 171,400 in April, according to DHS data.

Applications for Med-QUEST, which offers health coverage for local low-income residents, spiked 42 percent in April compared to the same month last year.

The agency does not have a common application for its myriad services akin to COMPASS, although spokeswoman Amanda Stevens said there’s been talk in the past year of trying to consolidate.

DHS has been getting many calls and inquiries from the state’s newly jobless, Stevens added.  He said the agency has been trying to keep the public updated and informed of their options on its website.

Want more information on COVID-19 in Hawaii? You can read all of Civil Beat’s coronavirus coverage, find answers to frequently asked questions or sign up for email newsletter updates — all for free. And check out pictures of how community groups and volunteers have been helping out in our Community Scrapbook.


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