Demonstrations sprang up around Honolulu on Saturday calling for the state to work faster in issuing unemployment payments, and to provide more aid to Hawaii residents struggling through the COVID-19 pandemic.

The relatively small smattering of rallies occurred one day after state labor and tax officials temporarily closed the Ke’elikolani Building that holds their downtown offices and told employees to stay home Friday because they expected a large protest might take place there.

In an email to Civil Beat, the Department of Taxation called it the “most prudent and responsible decision” given the situation’s unknowns. It agreed with its fellow state agency, Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which shares the building, to close Ke’elikolani in order “to protect the health and safety of our public servants.”

However, it’s not clear that any such protest took place Friday. 

unemployment UI
Pearl City resident Kelly Tatom protests with her granddaughter and others outside the State Capitol on Saturday, demanding more responsiveness on unemployment claims. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Furthermore, the ones that did occur near the building on Thursday and Saturday — although not directly outside of it — were tranquil.

“These rallies, they’re all meant to be peaceful. There’s no animosity,” said Sergio Alcubilla with Hawaii Workers Center, an organization that launched in May. “We feel for the workers there” and know that they’re stressed, Alcubilla added.

The rallies that his group has participated in aim to give those workers the resources they need, Alculbilla said, to help local residents who are growing increasingly desperate.

The Hawaii Workers Center’s initial focus was to be on low-wage workers and protecting them against wage theft, but as the pandemic stretched on the priority became unemployment insurance and getting timely relief for the state’s jobless, Alculbilla said.

He was among some 10 protesters who demonstrated along Beretania Avenue on Saturday in front of the State Capitol building and Washington Place, where Gov. David Ige lives. The rally was organized by a new grassroots group called Hawaii Unemployed United that emerged from the recent class-action lawsuit filed with the state Supreme Court on behalf of thousands of jobless residents against DLIR.

The court rejected that suit last month, stating that “it cannot be said that the petitioners lack alternative means of relief.”

The statement prompted Pearl City resident Kelly Tatom, a furloughed hotel-industry employee to join Saturday’s protest with her 6-year-old granddaughter.

“That right there, I felt personally it was inconsiderate,” Tatom said as cars drove by, some honking in support. “You don’t know the dynamics of each family” and the obstacles they face.

The DLIR did not respond to an email Saturday asking about its concerns over protests. The agency has previously stated that it’s received threats. Its former call center at the Hawaii Convention Center was closed to both the public and the media in order to protect employees.

Tatom said Saturday that she’s nearly maxed out her credit card, depleted her savings, withdrawn from her retirement account and relied on a food pantry to help make ends meet as she’s waited seven weeks so far for her Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC, to be approved. 

Local 5 supporters leave Kakaako park and march towards the Federal Building.
Unite Here Local 5 supporters marched in Kakaako on Saturday in part for more prompt payments from the state’s unemployment insurance program and other similar benefits programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Windward resident Cynthia Fite, who helped organize the protest, said it had a low turnout because many local residents struggling to resolve their unemployment insurance issues fear retribution from state officials if they join the rallies.

Local labor union Unite Here Local 5 also held a rally and march Saturday calling on the state’s newly elected and reelected leaders to help Hawaii residents navigate the pandemic, including with faster unemployment payments. 

Some 9,000 of the union’s 12,000 members are either furloughed or unemployed, according to spokesman Bryant De Venecia. That includes about 8,000 hotel workers and 1,000 airport workers, he said.

The union has had to assist its members in applying for unemployment throughout the pandemic because DLIR’s offices have been closed to the public, De Venecia said Saturday.

After Thursday’s protest in front of the Ke’elikolani building, “their response is to close the office,” De Venecia said. “That’s not what we’re asking. We want them to open up. Not everyone can access online applications.”

One of the main reasons DLIR has kept its doors closed is to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak, officials there have said.

Still, “hotels are open, gyms are open. Why is unemployment closed?” De Venecia said.

“I think it is an overreaction,” he added of the agency’s workers staying home Friday. “It is very counterproductive to what the workers need. There is an urgency for unemployment to pay us those claims. It really does not make sense.”

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