Should a new wave of COVID-19-related jobless claims hit, this time state officials will be ready to absorb it, the labor department’s acting director assured lawmakers Wednesday.

A key reason for Acting Director Anne Eustaquio’s confidence is that the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations eliminated what she described as an error-prone PDF application form, one that caused numerous problems getting claims approved earlier in the pandemic.

The online form allowed unemployment insurance applicants to type in anything. That often left the agency’s staff stuck resolving applications with the wrong dates of birth, social security numbers and other errors, Eustaquio told the state Senate’s Special Committee on COVID-19.

The DLIR’s offices, located at the Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building, remain closed. Its acting director said the agency is prepared to handle an influx of new claims. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

“We’ve mitigated that problem,” Eustaquio said during her first briefing before the select group of senators Wednesday. Now, the process is more automated to prevent such errors and typos, she said. The previous form “really created major problems for our staff as well as the claimants … we’re still cleaning up those types of problems.”

The DLIR, like many state labor departments around the U.S., was caught off guard without the staff or resources needed to handle the spike in jobless claims when the pandemic first hit in March. Officials are bracing for a new influx of such claims amid the state’s latest COVID-19-related shutdown orders.

Eustaquio has led the DLIR since early June after its former director, Scott Murakami went on leave and eventually resigned. The agency has reported paying out nearly 180,000 claims since March. Still, more than 10,000 of the most complex claims remain to be resolved — many of them requiring examiners to make decisions over job separation issues.

DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said last week that the agency would be prepared for a new wave of claims but that the agency would still struggle with the complex ones. Last week, DLIR put out a call to Hawaii’s legal community asking for volunteers to assist in that effort.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency last week approved Hawaii for its Lost Wages Assistance Program, which offers an additional $300 a week to many of the state’s unemployed workers for the month of August. The program allows for the state to kick in an additional $100 a week.

Those receiving less than $100 a week in unemployment benefits aren’t eligible for the FEMA program, however.

On Wednesday, Eustaquio suggested that the state could use its $100 weekly share to help those who aren’t eligible or other residents facing even greater hardship, instead of supplementing the payments for UI recipients who qualify for the FEMA program.

“It could be used in a different way. You could do any program,” she told the senators. “There’s a lot of individuals out there who don’t qualify for any unemployment insurance, but they’re financially in need as well.”

Ultimately, the decision on how to use the state funds will rest with Gov. David Ige, Eustaquio said. It’s not clear yet what he’ll do.

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