Perhaps you are a frontline worker in Hawaii — a nurse, a grocery store worker, a delivery person — and feel that your employer has not taken adequate steps to protect you from COVID-19.

Or maybe you were infected on the job and made a workers’ compensation claim, only to see it rejected.

If so, I am interested in hearing from you.

And as it turns out, that’s the only way I can possibly learn about and investigate these potential problems for Civil Beat, because the state labor department has gone completely opaque.

After hearing of stories involving both those scenarios — unsafe workplaces and worker comp claims denials — I got in touch with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations more than a week ago.

Volunteers load milk, eggs, bread, and potatoes into the waiting cars of those in need who showed up in droves to the Ala Moana Center for emergency food pick-up on Saturday, April 11, 2020, in Honolulu, HI. The Salvation Army Hawaiian & Pacific Islands, Hawaii State VOAD, and private citizens Chad & Stephanie Buck worked together to offer the Easter weekend drive-through food distribution event. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
With the sudden spike in job losses, many showed up for emergency food pick-up. But workers may be facing other issues because of the pandemic as well. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

I asked the designated media liaison, William Kunstman, for any complaints regarding COVID-19 protections to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the labor department.

I also asked about any worker comp claims or administrative decisions regarding workers who said they contracted COVID-19 on the job.

Crickets. Two days go by, and nothing. So I sent Kunstman another email, asking him if he was still the media spokesman for the labor department. I called the number listed for him and got another person’s voicemail. That person didn’t return my calls.

Finally, four days after my initial emails I got a one-sentence reply from Kunstman.

“You did notice the unemployment situation?”

I did, in fact. I read just Tuesday that the labor department has paid out on only one-third of the unemployment claims made since March 1, even as the state’s overall rate has shot up from a little more than 2% to more than a third. The suffering behind those numbers is hard to fathom.

I believe in the importance of what we do at Civil Beat and in the media in general, especially now.

But what I understood the media spokesman to be saying, in effect, was that this problem had so overwhelmed the department that it could give me no information on the many other cracks that may have opened under the pressure of the pandemic. He has not responded to ensuing emails.

Given that the state has also suspended the Uniform Information Practices Act, which requires government agencies to provide public records to reporters and members of the public, I am left facing a black hole of information.

Of course I understand that they are busy at the labor department. I did not expect a response the same day, or even in three days, except maybe “got your email, we’re extremely busy, I’ll get back to you when I can.”

That took me about 15 seconds to type.

I believe in the importance of what we do at Civil Beat and in the media in general, especially now. I believe, for instance, that if it’s true that many people are complaining about having to work under unsafe conditions, and we write a story about it, that someone at the labor department or the governor’s office or the Legislature might read about it and decide to do something.

Or that if people are being denied worker’s comp benefits after getting sick at work, an investigation might get insurers to change their ways.

I am not so naive as to believe this happens in most or even many cases. But it does happen.

And so, given the lockdown on information at the labor department, I am asking you to help — not just on these issues, but any others that may have arisen during the pandemic that we can only hear about if you tell us.

Armed with that kind of information, we can go to the labor department or any other governmental agency and start asking questions. And if they’re too busy to answer — well, that won’t stop us from publishing the story.

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