Scott Murakami, head of the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, is currently on leave from the agency, according to state officials.

It’s not clear whether Murakami stepped away voluntarily, nor is it clear whether the move is meant to be permanent. Both Cindy McMillan, the communications director for Gov. David Ige, and DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said they couldn’t provide more information.

Kunstman did offer that Murakami’s leave started this past Monday. In his place, Deputy Director Anne Eustaquio is overseeing DLIR, according to Kunstman.

Murakami’s leave comes as the state’s labor department, like its counterpart agencies around the U.S., has struggled to keep up with the massive surge of unemployment claims during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The last official count, on May 28, put Hawaii’s total claims at more than 250,000. Since then, however, the agency has said it no longer finds its data reliable and is trying to get a handle on the true count. Based on official estimates, Hawaii now has the third-highest unemployment rate in the country.

Scott Murakami, who heads Hawaii’s unemployment agency, has been a frequent guest on news programs like this one on Hawaii News Now to answer questions during the pandemic. He’s quietly gone on leave. Courtesy: Hawaii News Now

DLIR reports having paid out nearly $1 billion in state and federal unemployment compensation since March 1. However, the department’s limited resources have caused widespread frustration, with thousands of applicants unable to log on to the system or get through on the phone.

Thousands of local applicants still haven’t had their applications processed and have yet to see a dime in compensation. It’s still not clear exactly how many remain.

During the crisis, Murakami has been the public face of DLIR. The department has sought to avoid putting other employees in the public eye due to ongoing threats that it’s received, Kunstman said.

The agency has kept its seven-room, 270 workstation call center at the Hawaii Convention Center off limits to media and the public since launching it in April.

For about a month, Murakami had a sheriff’s detail escort him due to death threats that he received, Kunstman said Friday.

Under his tenure, DLIR has engineered patchwork IT fixes on the fly to try and ease the strain on the system. The department also trained more than 550 volunteers from other state agencies to help with the phones and redeployed nearly 80 of its own internal staff, according to Kunstman.

Still, unemployment applicants continue to report difficulties getting through on the phones. When they do employees often aren’t able to provide help on their claims, they say.

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