Still understaffed more than five months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s labor department is reaching out to Hawaii’s legal community for volunteer help resolving thousands of backlogged unemployment insurance claims.

Anne Eustaquio, the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ acting director, made that plea in a letter Wednesday to all Hawaii State Bar Association members.

“DLIR could use your analytical skills and experience to assist in processing the sheer volume of outstanding claims,” she wrote.

The agency issued a similar request to students at the University of Hawaii Manoa William S. Richardson School of Law, according to DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman. 

The state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations hopes to recruit volunteer lawyers and law students to work on complex claims at the Hawaii Convention Center along with the agency’s hired examiners. Courtesy DLIR

Any volunteers accepted to help would work with the agency’s examiners on some of the most complex claims — those involving disputes over how exactly the claimant left their job, Kunstman said. 

These “job-separation” issues tend to appear in the regular unemployment insurance program, not the special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which launched in May for independent contractors and those deemed ineligible for regular UI.

DLIR has reported paying out nearly 170,000 claims in the regular UI program since the pandemic hit. But the total number of claims “requiring DLIR action” has consistently hovered at over 10,000 throughout August.

Most of the 10,372 claims awaiting DLIR action as of Thursday had job-separation issues, Kunstman said. 

Some claimants, however, have been stuck in that pile for months, growing more desperate for payment or at least some resolution.

The agency currently has 47 examiners, including 20 that started work after the pandemic started, Kunstman said Thursday. It also has six recent hires that are still in training and slated to start soon, he said.

But DLIR is still recruiting for an additional 36 examiners that it says it needs to keep up with both regular UI and PUA claims. 

In the meantime, it’s asking lawyers and law students to help carry the load pro bono. Kunstman said the idea was in the works prior to the latest state and county shut down orders, which aim to curb the islands’ recent COVID-19 outbreak.

Read Eustaquio’s letter here:

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