More than 90,000 Hawaii residents are stuck in a jobless limbo, awaiting approval for their unemployment insurance payments as the state works to process their claims.

Those payments could take weeks or even months to arrive, officials say, even as rent and other bills come due much earlier.

One proposed solution, from Sen. Laura Thielen: Create an emergency, repayable loan program so the applicants can get the payments upfront.

The state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said Friday that Thielen’s proposal is doable — as long as it doesn’t involve the unemployment program. The loans would have to be separate and independent so as not to run afoul of federal regulations.

However, Gov. David Ige said in a statement Friday that his administration would not set up the loan program.

Sen Laura Thielen questions Dept of Health Keith Ridley in Capitol Room 16 on care home reports being made public with up to 2 month delay.
Under Sen. Laura Thielen’s proposal, the state would loan money to unemployment claims applicants while they wait, but Gov. David Ige said no. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“All of our efforts and resources are focused on clearing up the backlog of unemployment claims, ensuring that all those who have applied and are eligible receive the benefits that they are entitled to,” Ige said.

DLIR has reported paying out more than $140 million in insurance claims to more than 100,000 residents who’ve lost their jobs in the past two months. Still, the agency, like its counterparts across the country, has struggled to keep up with the demand.

As of Thursday, more than 91,000 applications had problems to be sorted out. Nearly 70,000 of those had been categorized as the highest “Level 3” problem. It’s the most challenging and complex category — state officials often have to investigate and then make a “subjective” decision, according to DLIR Director Scott Murakami.

Thielen worries that by the time those claims are approved, the payments will arrive too late for the applicants. The key is to get them the money now and let them pay it back later, she said.

Under her proposal, the money could come from the state’s share of more than $860 million from the federal CARES Act, which aims to provide financial assistance during the COVID-19 crisis, or from the state’s existing rainy day fund.

Governor David Ige gestures during Coronavirus COVID-19 press conference held at Capitol. April 8, 2020
“All of our efforts and resources are focused on clearing up the backlog of unemployment claims,” Gov. David Ige said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Most of the claims would eventually be approved, she said — even if the state lost money on those denied, it would be worth getting money to the majority who will be approved.

Thielen said she still hoped to make a case to the Ige administration to set up the loan program for Level 3 applicants.

“They have done heroic things and they’ve got to be exhausted. And they’ve got to be thinking, ‘Let’s just get this done,’” Thielen said, referring to the unemployment insurance payments.

“We know that many of these people that are in this situation … cannot go more than two months without income.”

It could be useful should the state face a second wave of COVID-19 infections after restarting the economy, she added.

House Speaker Scott Saiki expressed support for the proposal, calling it a “worthy idea.”

Saiki said in a text message that he’d like to see such a program co-administered by a financial institution and the state, similar to the Paycheck Protection Program set up to help small businesses during the pandemic.

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