A new class-action lawsuit before the Hawaii Supreme Court aims to get the state labor department to move faster on the thousands of jobless workers whose claims remain unresolved amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The petition, filed Monday, seeks to compel the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to pay and process those claims “promptly” as required by law.
It also seeks emergency payments from DLIR to those unemployed residents who are still awaiting resolution — and growing increasingly desperate.
“These individuals are facing financial and emotional hardship and, in many cases, destitution. But over half a year into the pandemic, thousands of them continue to be failed by the inability of the DLIR to timely process, resolve, and, most importantly, pay benefits to the citizens whose interests it is supposed to serve,” the petition says.
“While initial difficulty may have been understandable immediately following the onset of the pandemic and resulting restrictions, more than six months in, the DLIR’s failings can no longer be excused or ignored,” it adds.
The suit includes declarations from 20 people. It was filed on behalf of “all similarly situated individuals” who’ve endured a mental and financial toll amid DLIR’s inability to resolve the state’s most complex unemployment claims in a timely manner.
It asks that the state’s highest court order the labor department to “take all actions necessary” to promptly resolve claims and pay those who are eligible. It further asks that DLIR report to the court within 14 days all the steps it’s taking to get that done.
The DLIR declined to comment Monday on the suit. The agency has previously stated that it cannot make such preemptive payments under federal labor laws. However, it has said that a separate, repayable loan program to claimants administered by the state but outside of DLIR would be doable. Gov. David Ige nixed that idea in May, however.
The state labor department has reported paying out an unprecedented $3.3 billion in benefits on nearly 180,000 claims since March 1. Also since March it’s hired at least 24 new claims examiners with a goal to hire an additional 30.
Anne Eustaquio, the agency’s director, told lawmakers earlier this month that she’s confident DLIR is now prepared to handle any new surge in unemployment claims.
Nonetheless, the agency continues to struggle to resolve the most complex, time-consuming unemployment claims, and that’s left thousands of local jobless residents languishing, many of them now facing financial peril.
Many of those claims involve so-called “job-separation issues” that determine whether a person is actually eligible for payments. They require further examination by a claims examiner.
It wasn’t until Sept. 17 that DLIR reported getting its total number of unresolved claims under 10,000. DLIR has asked local law students and members of the Hawaii state bar to volunteer and help with the effort, a move that the lawsuit says “smacks of desperation, not strategic action.”
The suit, filed by attorneys Paul Alston and J. Blaine Rogers of the lawfirm Dentons, chronicles the core frustrations that Hawaii claimants have faced dealing with DLIR since the pandemic hit.
There are unresolved claims that date back to March, including some that still have yet to receive any response from the agency, the suit states.
Other claimants have encountered what they see to be obvious yet unexplained errors in the department’s processing of their weekly payments, in which some weeks remain pending with no clear explanation while others get paid.
Most claimants who run into problems say it remains extremely difficult to get in touch with someone at the agency.
The suit further claims that many of Hawaii’s substitute teachers are being improperly denied employment benefits.
Public school substitutes who miss calls for assignment from the Department of Education’s robo-call system, it states, are reported as refusing to accept available work, thus rendering them ineligible for unemployment payments both as a substitute and any other jobs they’ve held.
Some substitutes who missed the calls say they’ve been unable to get the state to change that designation.
Others, such as Wailuku resident Gael Reuss, who’s listed in the suit, say they never received a call in the first place yet were still reported as refusing substitute work. Reuss said she had to give state officials call logs provided by her phone carrier, T-Mobile, to prove she never got a call nor had she blocked the DOE number.
“Something’s definitely shady,” Reuss said Friday.
The DOE’s listing her as refusing work stopped the unemployment payments from her main job as a concierge, Reuss added.
Declarations from other jobless residents in the suit describe the severe mental and emotional toll it’s taken on them and their families as they’ve tried to resolve their claims, including thoughts of suicide.
Kailua resident Melissa Nunes said she and her husband were in the middle of relocating to Oregon when the pandemic hit.
Her husband stayed in Hawaii while she moved to Oregon in March to take a part-time job as a customer service representative with Hawaiian Airlines and a full-time job with the cable company Spectrum to help subsidize the move prior to her husband’s arrival, she said.
Nunes said she’s always worked two or three jobs. The family hoped that by moving to Oregon they eventually wouldn’t have to work so many jobs thanks to the cheaper cost of living.
But the pandemic upended that plan. Nunes said her husband’s job interviews in Oregon were canceled and that she was furloughed by Hawaiian Airlines on April 1. The Spectrum job wasn’t enough to make ends meet, she said.
On Friday, she described an anguishing choice: Either try and make the meager pay at Spectrum work in Oregon or return to her family in Hawaii. Eventually, she chose her family, but she said the move disqualified her from receiving unemployment payments.
She thought she had good cause for her unemployment claim, but DLIR told her “it was not a good cause,” Nunes said.
Nunes said her claim was listed as “ending due to job separation” on May 24, and that DLIR told her to wait for a claims examiner to get in touch. No one ever contacted her, she said. She then got a letter denying her claim on Sept. 22.
“No one’s called me yet. I’m always by my phone,” Nunes said. “That’s the hardest thing. They did not let me fight my case, or discuss my case.
“This was supposed to be my new start in life when I moved here,” Nunes said of Oregon. “It turned into a year of hell. I didn’t have anybody. I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it by myself and I needed to be home. Financially, mentally, emotionally, I needed to be home – and that’s why I went home.”
Nunes said she never understood depression “until this happened.”
“I thought about suicide. It’s the dumbest thing in my head. This was supposed to be a new start,” she said.
She said she sometimes picks fights with her husband because “I’m so depressed, crying to sleep every night.”
“I’m not used to not working, I’ve always worked,” she said.
Read the lawsuit here:
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