The state is about to distribute $500 debit cards to unemployed workers across the state that can be redeemed at any Hawaii restaurant as a way of boosting the local food service industry while also offering a bit of support to jobless residents.

The cards will initially go out to an estimated 100,000 people starting in mid-October, and the program is now expected to cost $75 million, according Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. She said there will be a second pool of people who will also be eligible, but did not describe who would be included.

The “Restaurant Cash Card Program” was sketched out earlier this week in a discussion before the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, and Perreira-Eustaquio elaborated on the idea for reporters at a press conference Wednesday.

Open for Take out restaurants like L&L prepare for in restaurant dining after June 5, 2020 during COVID-19 pandemic. May 28, 2020
The unemployed will soon receive debit-style cards allowing them to spend $500 at local restaurants, a program aimed at helping both the jobless and local dining establishments. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

She also announced the launch of a “virtual call center” Wednesday that mobilized a mainland contractor with 50 workers from other states who are trained in the complexities of unemployment insurance issues.

About 8,000 people still need to have their claims reviewed to determine if they will receive their “first pay,” she said, and the new contracted unemployment claims staff will help sort though the problems that continue to block unemployment payments to those workers.

The call center will ramp up later to include 200 new trained call agents to review claims, identify problems and clean them up if possible, and Perreira-Eustaquio said 40 percent of the new call agents will be local workers.

In a related development, Perreira-Eustaquio described plans for a new “adjudication center” that should be operational in mid-October and is designed to speed up the resolution of the most complex unemployment cases.

That operation will have a staff of 100 people, and will address situations such as disputes where workers were disqualified from receiving unemployment and want to appeal, and scenarios where employees have been called back to their jobs but declined to return to work. The adjudication center will have a staff of 100 to sort through those issues, she said.

Gov. David Ige said the state has processed 95% of the applications for unemployment benefits and paid out more than $3 billion in benefits but “we do know that there are some in our community who have not been able to receive benefits, and we continue to work to process all of the applications that we have.”

Ige on Wednesday also released a new list that shows how his administration plans to use nearly $863 million in federal CARES Act money that must be spent by the end of the year.

The chart shows that the state Department of Defense and Department of Health together will receive nearly $213 million for pandemic response and related expenses; county governments on Kauai, Maui and Hawaii islands would receive about $175 million; and rent and mortgage subsidies for tenants and homeowners will total $100 million.

The list also includes $86 million for airport screening and “health assurance security initiatives;” a total of $51 million for the University of Hawaii and public school systems to help them cope with the pandemic; a total of $30 million for “business plan restructuring support” and an “economic resiliency grant program;” and $75 million for the restaurant card program.

The restaurant card program will run until Dec. 15, and the cards can be used at any restaurant statewide. The cards will be mailed directly to eligible workers, who do not need to apply for them. UPDATE: Sponsors of the program initially said the cards could be used to pay whatever charges are on the restaurant tabs, but now say the card cannot be used to purchase alcohol.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said every $1 spent in a restaurant generates $1.82 in economic activity, and cited estimates by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization that the program will save at least 1,000 jobs.

“This new program speaks directly to our priorities to revive our economy and strengthen our community,” Ige said.

Masked Governor David Ige enters press conference during COVID19 pandemic. August 31, 2020
Gov. David Ige said Wednesday that lifting the 14-day interisland quarantine may be linked to the availability of COVID-19 tests. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Ige also said Wednesday the 14-day mandatory quarantine for interisland travel will remain in place, at least for the time being. The governor said he and the county mayors are discussing the possibility of waiving the quarantine for people who are tested for  COVID-19 before they travel interisland, but “the challenge is access to tests.”

Pre-travel testing for trans-Pacific passengers will be done out of state, but if widespread testing were implemented for neighbor island travel, that could strain the state’s testing capacity, Ige said. Laboratories in Hawaii can handle 3,000 to 5,000 tests per day, but in ordinary times interisland traffic amounts to 20,000 to 25,000 people per day.

Ige said the state needs to ensure testing is available for the highest priority cases, such as people who show symptoms of COVID-19, close contacts of those who may be infected, the staffs and residents of nursing homes, and first responders.

“We want to make sure that we don’t take away from that capacity for leisure travel or travel that wouldn’t be as high of a priority,” Ige told reporters.

“We continue to look for access to tests, and that would give us access to more options,” he said.

He added that the state is on the verge of awarding a contract to boost the statewide COVID-19 testing capacity to 12,000 tests or more per day, but did not elaborate on that initiative.

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