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Kaimana Apo was just getting his life together. The 50-year-old divorcé had moved to Oahu from Maui back in 2017 after getting out of prison.
He moved into a sober house in town and started picking up shifts at the Waioli Kitchen and Bake Shop, a Manoa restaurant dedicated to giving parolees like him second chances. After years of backlogged bills and bad choices, it felt like a fresh start.
“I learned a new way to live without playing Russian roulette with drugs and alcohol,” says Apo, who served time for drug and domestic violence convictions.
This year, he was earning enough as a prep cook that he no longer needed to rely on food stamps and public health insurance. He started saving money, and at one point says he had more than $700 in the bank.
“And then the pandemic hit and now I’m back on everything again,” he says, referring to the public assistance programs.
Apo is among nearly a quarter of a million Hawaii residents who have applied for unemployment insurance in the wake of economic shutdowns aimed at stemming the spread of the coronavirus.
But for more than 100,000 people still waiting to get benefits, that safety net is proving elusive.
The state has struggled to pay out unemployment benefits, and as of Monday, fewer than half of the applicants had received any money. The delays mean people are going weeks — and some, more than a month — without money that they desperately need.
Apo says he filed his initial claim on March 23 and didn’t hear back about whether he was approved until April 27. He was able to pay May rent with his savings but now his balance is nearly zero.
He’s still waiting for a check and wonders if his application was swallowed up by the deluge that came in April.
“The workers are just picking from the top of the pile,” he speculates.
Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the unemployment office, says that applications are being processed in the order they are received but more than 6,000 got held up because of errors in wages reported, account numbers and other issues.
The bigger challenge is the fact that the agency is depending on archaic technology to process more than 200,000 claims, and the only option besides filing online is to call.
Back in March, the state stopped accepting in-person filings as a precaution against spreading the virus. Satellite offices and call centers have popped up, but Kunstman says the agency had to shut one down after receiving threats. The National Guard is now stationed outside unemployment call centers, he says.
“This week we are really hoping to turn the corner because we’ve got the additional capacity,” he says, noting the state has multiplied unemployment staff, quadrupled the shifts and added new technology. Hawaii’s among many states nationwide that have struggled to pay out unemployment claims in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kunstman apologizes to people who are still waiting for their money.
“Rest assured that if they’re eligible they will get their benefits and they will get their benefits backdated to whenever they separated from their employment,” he said. “We’re working seven days a week to try to make it happen.”
Celeste Kamai hadn’t seen it coming.
“It shut down so fast that we didn’t have any income, we had nothing,” she says.
The bakery owner had been selling her custom cakes and desserts at Oahu farmers’ markets for years until the coronavirus shutdowns in mid-March brought her business to a near halt.
“It’s very stressful, it’s nerve-racking at the same time because I have a 4-year-old,” she says. “I’m trying to hustle online with online sales but it’s nothing compared to what we’d make at the farmer’s market.”
Kamai, a single mom, struggled to apply for unemployment online and couldn’t reach anyone over the phone. She went in person once to the Punchbowl headquarters where she says state sheriffs told her and others to leave. She got conflicting letters from the agency, one with her name misspelled and one with the wrong Social Security number.
Eventually she logged on successfully and realized her application had been denied. What Kamai didn’t realize for weeks was that Hawaii’s unemployment application doesn’t cover people who are self-employed like her.
Kunstman from the unemployment office says that because it’s an insurance program that employers pay into, self-employed people aren’t eligible. Last week the state announced its portal for a new federal program aimed at self-employed workers but money isn’t expected to be paid out for a couple of weeks.
“There was no communication from them saying, ‘Hey, you’re self-employed, you’re not eligible,'” Kamai says.
Kunstman says the information is on the state’s website, which is being continually updated.
Now Kamai is trying to apply for the new federally funded program and get on other public assistance programs.
It’s a familiar feeling. When she got pregnant four years ago, she was working as a catering manager at Aloha Stadium. She needed to take time off because she had a high-risk pregnancy but was told her company couldn’t hold her position for her.
For two years she relied on food stamps and state health insurance, she says. When she got her catering business off the ground, she baked cupcakes for state workers who had helped her and celebrated her good-bye.
The farmers’ market closures forced her to call them up again.
“I told them I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to call back again but I need help,” she says. But she’s relieved she has people she can turn to.
“If you didn’t have a strong support system, you have to have one now.”
Even for those with family who can help, the stress is taking a toll. Laura McKenna spent more than a decade working and living in Hawaii before starting a new adventure.
The 57-year-old decided to move to Arizona earlier this year to take a new job at a retail merchandising company. “New city, new job, new chapter!” she captioned a new Facebook profile picture of her holding balloons and a “Welcome 2 Tucson” sign on February 28.
Her excitement was short-lived. Faced with pandemic closures, her company laid her off. She discovered she’s not eligible for Arizona unemployment since she just got there. She has tried to apply in Hawaii but hasn’t gotten any money, much less in touch with any employees.
Kunstman from the unemployment office says McKenna should be eligible in Hawaii since she was working here and only recently moved.
“I just find it hard to believe that in seven weeks they couldn’t have one person at least answer the phone,” she says. She’s stuck in Arizona now and felt pathetic borrowing money from her kid.
“It’s obvious that no one cares,” she says, before hanging up because she was too upset to talk. “It’s every man for himself right now.”
This prolonged period without any income is forcing some to get creative.
Julia Woodrow, a 28-year-old Kauai resident, lost three jobs in the same week at the end of March. She had about $750 saved and applied for unemployment right away. More than a month later, she hasn’t gotten any money and her nest egg is down to about $120.
“It’s been like an exercise in extreme budgeting,” she says.
She had to cancel therapy because she couldn’t afford it. She’s taken to bartering avocados for herbs she can cook with. One silver lining is the time for self-reflection.
“One of the things that’s been really important to me is to be independent and self-sufficient. Suddenly that ability was stripped away,” she says.
Amid the empty stretches of time and protracted uncertainty, it’s helpful for her to realize that she’s not alone.
“I think I’ve been learning to separate my own identity and wellbeing from what I do for a living and slowly been exploring how to take care of myself during this strange time,” she said.
The lack of information about when unemployment checks will arrive is frustrating to many. Despite frequent government press conferences and Facebook Live Q&As, people are still clamoring for more answers.
Apo is one of more than 7,600 members of a new Facebook group called Hawaii Unemployment Updates & Support Group.
“I get more information by looking on Facebook than I do from the unemployment office,” he says.
His days have a repetitive feel now. He wakes up early and attempts to sign into the unemployment website. He tries to spend some time outside to stave off depression. He still sees his therapist virtually.
Life has continued to move forward, in ways both big and small. He discovered that he remembers how to sew. He recently found out that his father has cancer.
Apo feels powerless, but he also feels fortunate. His 70-something roommate got laid off from Ward Theater and is less tech-savvy than him, making the unemployment application process exponentially harder.
Getting through this pandemic requires the same skills as staying sober: focusing on one day at a time, Apo says.
“Sometimes to go forward we have to stop and let life happen,” he says. But it’s not easy.
“I try to find hope in everything, but it is very hard when it seems like the system is going to bypass you.”
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