Hawaii Gov. David Ige is making it mandatory again to search for a job while receiving unemployment benefits.

The governor lifted the requirement last year when the pandemic hit and unemployment ballooned. A year ago, more than 230,000 unemployment claims had been filed in the wake of stay-at-home orders, Ige said Thursday at a press conference.

Unemployment in Hawaii is now 8.5%, still above the national average. But Ige thinks it’s time for recipients to show that they are actively looking for work.

Governor David Ige gestures during press conference answering teleconferenced reporters questions. February 9, 2021
Hawaii is once again requiring people receiving unemployment benefits who are fully unemployed to search for work. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The New York Times reported that more than half of U.S. states have reinstated their job search mandates to receive unemployment insurance as COVID-19 vaccinations have become more widely available.

Hawaii expanded eligibility for coronavirus vaccines to all residents aged 16 and up one month ago. Nearly half — 47% — of the population have completed their vaccine doses.

Hawaii’s job search requirement goes into effect beginning May 30. Workers must begin searching for jobs that week and report evidence of their job search on June 6.

Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, estimated that the work requirement will affect 106,000 Hawaii residents.

Only those who are fully unemployed will be required to search for a job and show that they made three contacts per week, such as filling out a job application or meeting with a potential employer.

Perreira-Eustaquio said that Hawaii has 153,000 active unemployment insurance claims as well as 38,000 active claims for pandemic unemployment assistance. People who are partially unemployed won’t be subject to the work search mandate, nor will those who are part of a union.

But Paola Rodelas from Unite Here Local 5 says that the union for hotel workers and health care workers spoke with the labor department Thursday and were told Local 5 members must start checking in with the union weekly to affirm their willingness to work.

“Our bigger issue at Local 5 is that our employers aren’t calling people back to work,” she said.

There’s also the practical aspect of fulfilling that requirement — prior to the pandemic, Local 5 received about 100 calls per week from unemployed members who fulfilled that mandate to affirm their willingness to work. Today, thousands of members are still out of work, Rodelas said.

Beth Giesting, who leads the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center, said she is concerned about how the requirement will affect parents who can’t go back to work because they don’t have child care.

The pandemic led to a shrinkage in available child care spots and many. Hawaii schools are still not back to full in-person learning. The public school year ends next week.

“There are some parents who are just not going to be able to rejoin the workforce if they also have childcare responsibilities so there needs to be some leniency around that,” Giesting said.

Perreira-Eustaquio said at the press conference that the state’s unemployment system doesn’t have exceptions for people who can’t go back to work due to child care responsibilities, but that exception does exist for residents receiving pandemic unemployment assistance.

Giesting questioned that rule.

“But if the governor is making the call, then why can’t he impose some flexibility around that? I think it will be really bad for working families who don’t have any options for kids right now,” she said.

Perreira-Eustaquio also said the unemployment insurance job search requirement still extend to unemployed people who aren’t returning to work for health reasons, for example people suffering from long COVID or people who can’t get vaccinated due to health concerns.

Perreira-Eustaquio acknowledged that enforcing the new work requirement would stretch the agency’s resources, which are already being used to prevent overpayment of unemployment and adjudicate claims.

“It will take away some resources,” she said, but clarified, “I wouldn’t say they can expect additional delays.”

The state has also created a new website where employers can report employees who refuse to return to work.

Economists from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization found that found that 16,000 people left Hawaii’s labor force during the pandemic.

Thousands have left the state and researchers found that lack of child care is preventing many women from returning to work. Tourism is returning in Hawaii but that hasn’t necessarily translated into jobs.

“The recovery of jobs has trailed behind tourism,” UHERO said in its report.

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