The Hawaii Civil Rights Commission has reopened for business, and can now accept new complaints from Hawaii residents who face discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the office is only partially staffed and the commission’s backlog of investigations continues to grow, according to executive director Bill Hoshijo.

The office closed for more than a month in mid-March after the statewide stay-at-home order was enacted in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Louis Erteschik, the executive director of the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said delays in processing cases, while understandable during the pandemic, are problematic for Hawaii residents trying to get justice.

Louis Erteschik 1132 Bishop Street. 20 sept 2016
Louis Erteschik, executive director of  the Hawaii Disability Rights Center, said it’s important for the legal system to fix the backlog of cases at the Human Rights Commission. On average, each case was taking a year to resolve, even before the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“They’ve been notoriously backed up for as long as I can remember but I don’t doubt that this has thrown them even further behind,” he said of the commission.

“It’s important in general in the legal system to try to get some sort of speedy resolution to whatever the issue is. There’s a lot of people who rely on the Civil Rights Commission.”

The state agency investigates residents’ complaints and facilitates case resolutions, which can range from monetary settlements to updating policies. Normally, the commission accepts an average of more than 47 new complaints per month on issues like employment and housing discrimination.

The Civil Rights Commission’s partial reopening on April 27 means that some staff have returned to the office on Punchbowl. Others were rerouted to the unemployment office, another division of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which has buckled under a staggering number of claims.

Hoshijo said the office couldn’t properly maintain social distancing if it were fully staffed anyway.

In an effort to maintain social distancing, the office isn’t accepting any in-person visits and is only interfacing with the public over the phone, through fax or by email.

“Going forward, for the duration of the pandemic emergency stay-at-home period, the HCRC will have capacity to provide assistance and information, assess and prioritize inquiries, conduct intakes, accept complaint filings and effect service of complaints,” Hoshijo wrote in an email to Civil Beat.

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, executive director of the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission, said even as the office reopens it won’t have the ability yet to continue ongoing investigations. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

What’s missing is the ability to continue investigations in ongoing cases. Even before the pandemic, the commission was short-staffed and faced a growing backlog of cases.

Its annual caseload inventory has been growing steadily since fiscal year 2017, when it fell sharply from 380 to 205. In fiscal year 2019, it was back up to 321. On average, it takes nearly a year to resolve each case, according to the agency’s latest available annual report.

Hoshijo said that when some staffers returned to work on April 27, they encountered a backlog of pending inquiries and since then have focused on conducting intakes and filing and servicing complaints since then.

Staff were able to wrap up a few cases but those were generally those that were close to being resolved and where investigations had largely already been completed, he said.

Hoshijo said the backlog of cases in need of investigation “will have to be addressed once we are back at full capacity.”

“Given state budget concerns, possible cuts and a hiring freeze, this will be challenging,” he said.

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