As Hawaii enters its fourth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of jobless residents remain in limbo, their unemployment claims unresolved and no indication of when they’ll see payment, if ever.

But precisely how many claims remain to be processed isn’t clear: the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations says it no longer has confidence in the data that it’s been getting off the state’s antiquated mainframe.

DLIR stopped providing daily counts last Thursday, when it reported more than 254,000 claims on the mainframe including more than 62,000 left to process. Now: “We’re not sure about the numbers,” spokesman Bill Kunstman said Wednesday.

The agency recently noticed inconsistencies in its reports, he said. It’s trying to get a handle on exactly how many claims are actually still outstanding, as well as how they should be categorized.

That means DLIR further can’t say how long it will take to process the remaining claims, representing some of the trickiest and most complicated ones to resolve.

Food Bank Distribution Leeward Community College Coronavirus Volunteer
Unemployed residents are turning to food drives, like this one last month in Pearl City, while they wait for DLIR to process their unemployment claims. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

As the months drag on, those applicants face increasingly dire circumstances as they await a final decision from a state-run insurance program that’s been vastly overwhelmed.

Many who’ve gone at least eight weeks without an unemployment check have already put off paying bills, sought out rent assistance, food drives and the Supplemental Nutrition Program, commonly known as SNAP — food stamps.

“They say, ‘Please be patient; please wait,’” Mililani resident John Hammer said last week.

He’d been waiting since early April for some word on his claim, he said. “After eight weeks, how much more patient do you want us to be?”

At this point, Hammer and others stuck in the system just want to be denied so they can apply for the separate Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, where they expect to find better luck getting paid.

“A lot of them are in that situation — they just want the official denial,” said Peter Yee, a moderator of Hawaii Unemployment Updates and Support Group. The Facebook page has collected more than 12,000 members since the pandemic hit.

“I’m having to totally start over with nothing. I don’t even have a car.” — Andrea Harsell

They’ve gone numerous weeks and pay periods without income in one of the nation’s most expensive places to live. Thanks to an economy largely reliant on tourism, Hawaii now has the third-highest unemployment rate in the nation, based on official estimates.

Hammer said he’s been luckier than most in Hawaii because his wife is still employed. Her income has gotten their family by so far, allowing them to defer payment on loans and bills.

“Come this month, when those bills are due, that’s going to put a big financial strain on us,” he said.

The next step will be to choose which bills they can pay, and Hammer predicts that will do serious damage to their credit.

Many of the people in Yee’s group also face challenges securing medical insurance.

Others have moved out of state entirely.

“I’m having to totally start over with nothing. I don’t even have a car,” said Andrea Harsell, who moved to Oahu with her son in 2018 after attending the University of Hawaii in the 1990s. With no money coming in, she and her son recently moved back to her hometown of Missoula, Montana, to live with her parents.

“I’m not as bad off as so many people in Hawaii. I’m super grateful for that. But still, I’m losing hope,” Harsell said.

‘Level 3 Is Tough’

Applicants say it’s still difficult to get through to a state official to discuss their claims.

“It’s a full time job, just trying to get them on the phone,” Harsell said.

She said she’s called hundreds of times and managed to get through twice. The employees she spoke to weren’t able to provide much help, she said.

“It’s great they have all these volunteers but they don’t have any answers,” Harsell said.

Meanwhile, it’s difficult to assess just how well DLIR is handling all the demand with the limited resources and personnel it’s got.

The agency, like its counterpart agencies across the nation, has scrambled in the past two months to try to keep up with the sudden spike in claims.

The department took over seven rooms at the Hawaii Convention Center in April to launch a 270-station call center, including 60 stations to handle so-called Level 3 claims — the most difficult ones to examine and resolve.

DLIR Director Scott Murakami has flagged so-called Level 3 claims as the ones that worry him the most. Courtesy: DLIR

Those claims often involve determining whether an applicant was laid off, left voluntarily or was fired. State workers have to question both the applicant and the employer before they can decide whether to approve.

DLIR has reported training more than 550 volunteers from other state agencies to help out occasionally at the center, although they don’t work regular shifts there. Another 31 employees redeployed from other state agencies do work there full time, Kunstman added.

The state won’t allow the media to observe the call center mostly due to safety concerns and to protect the identities of those working there, according to Kunstman.

“We have ongoing threats to our staff,” he said in an email last month.

Despite the hundreds trained to staff the phones, only 76 personnel are trained to adjudicate the Level 3 claims — however many thousands of those claims are left.

“Level 3 is my concern … Level 3 is tough,” DLIR Director Scott Murakami told a Senate panel last month.

A ‘Chaotic Situation’

Kauai native Alika Parks hasn’t heard back on his claim yet and he suspects he’s trapped in the Level 3 pile. He says he filed his claim on March 16.

“I’m stuck, I have no choice. I have to wait for them. I can’t just apply for PUA. I have no choice but to be broke.”

Recently, he said, he got through on the phone and was told it would be another two to three weeks before they would get to his claim.

“At least I know I’ll be broke for the next two to three weeks,” Parks said.

Like many in the state, he works multiple jobs to make ends meet. Recently, he worked at a restaurant, in the visitor industry and as a surf instructor, he said.

“People with two, three jobs … it’s going to throw them for a big loop,” Parks said last week. Employment history in Hawaii is often complex, and that makes it even more difficult to submit a so-called “clean” claim.

Unemployment Insurance office located at the Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building . DLIR
Members of the Hawaii Unemployment Updates and Support Group on Facebook say that it is difficult to get in touch with anyone about outstanding unemployment claims. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Last month, Murakami said that one of the biggest errors applicants make is to list only their most recent job instead of all the jobs they’ve worked in the past 18 months. That often stymies their approval, he said.

Yee, who moderates the Facebook page, said that DLIR could do a better job guiding applicants through the process.

“I struggled and struggled like everyone else. There was no information out,” said Yee, who was laid off from his car-rental agency job when the pandemic hit. “There was just so much information I needed and I didn’t know if I made a mistake. A lot of my friends made mistakes.”

Unemployment insurance applicants still awaiting a claims decision see rows of “pending” on their page, such as this one provided by Oahu resident Nicole Antos. Nicole Antos

Overall, it’s been a “chaotic situation,” Yee added.

Nicole Antos said she was furloughed from her job as a bartender and filed on March 18. As of last week her claim hadn’t been processed and she didn’t know why. She’s managed to get through on the phone once and the employee said a specialist would have to review her claim.

She suspects it was “dumped to the bottom” because when the online form asked her whether she was looking for work she clicked “no” even though applicants by default are supposed to click “yes.”

“I didn’t want to lie on the form,” Antos said. “I wish they were more clear about that initially” — by the time she realized her mistake “it was already messed up.”

She was slated to return to work this week, but she’s preparing to make far less income. Her situation will be worse, she said, if she doesn’t collect unemployment.

“It’s extremely disheartening. You want to believe in our state and the people in power, but I feel this situation has made clear they prioritize other things,” Antos said.

“It’s taken 10 weeks. I know I’m not the only one. People are just so stressed about money.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author