Every day, Hawaii’s unemployment call center receives 25,000 calls from about 6,000 unique numbers. Of those, about 800 calls are actually answered.

More than a year into the pandemic, many Hawaii residents are still struggling with the state’s outdated unemployment insurance system. A frequent complaint from last year — that the phones are tied up at the unemployment office — remains true for many callers.

“In one day I called the call center 75 times and not once have I gotten through,” said Candace Pacheco, a 35-year-old Kalihi resident.

“All agents are assisting other claimants. Try your call again,” Pacheco recalls the automated response saying. “It’s depressing.”

The unemployment office is still physically closed and that means people have to call or email to ask questions about their unemployment benefits. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii’s unemployment office was overwhelmed last year when the pandemic hit, triggering a massive wave of job losses as tourism, the state’s main industry, essentially shut down and other businesses closed amid state-imposed lockdowns. At the peak of the crisis, the office was receiving about 40,000 calls per day as the state’s unemployment rate swung from a historic low of 2% in January 2020 to a historic high of 21.9% in May 2020.

Hawaii's Unemployment Office

More than a year later, Hawaii’s economy looks much brighter. More than half of the population is vaccinated against the coronavirus, tourism is revving up and 100-person weddings are once again allowed.

The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has a new director, Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, and the state has replaced its contractor for the unemployment call center, brought on to address the pandemic-induced application backlog, with in-house staff.

But Hawaii still has the highest unemployment rate in the nation: 8.5% in April. Perreira-Eustaquio said her office is still dealing with about 150,000 active unemployment claims.

Bill Kunstman, spokesman for the unemployment office, said it can take up to three weeks to process a payment for a regular claimant without any complications. More complex cases may take longer.

And there are a lot of complex cases. Some people who claimed unemployment insurance in retrospect weren’t eligible because they left their jobs for disqualifying reasons and the state is trying to resolve overpayment issues.

Perreira-Eustaquio said her office is also running into problems with claimants who use an out-of-state IP address, saying the unemployment rules require recipients to be located in Hawaii.

One reason people are calling so often is the fact that the unemployment office is still closed to in-person visits. Perreira-Eustaquio said the agency is still figuring out how to open the office safely.

Meanwhile, Perreira-Eustaquio encouraged claimants to call the office between 7:45 a.m. and 4:30 p.m Monday through Friday. It’s now possible to sign up online for phone appointments, but those are only available on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

In contrast, the state’s crisis hotline for behavioral health is available for calls 24/7. Health department officials who manage that line, which helps people in psychiatric distress, say they’ve increasingly been getting calls from people who are frustrated about unemployment or fearful of losing their housing.

“We get tons and tons of calls about unemployment,” said Eddie Mersereau, deputy director of the health department’s behavioral health division, adding that the state often recommends counseling services or connects callers to social services. He expects that the hotline’s call volume will increase when the state’s eviction moratorium is lifted.

Perreira-Eustaquio said the limited appointments for unemployment assistance and the limited hours for the call center reflect constraints on staffing.

The unemployment call center staffed up and hit nearly 90 employees in late March and early April, Perreira-Eustaquio said. But that’s already dropped to about 55 employees.

Anne Perreira-Eustaquio is the head of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Courtesy: DLIR

She said the attrition is due to a combination of people who got hired to staff the call center getting called back to their original jobs and others who have struggled with the emotional challenge of handling unemployment calls.

“It’s hard on the heart because you feel for every single person who comes in,” she said, adding that the unfortunate reality is that “unemployment insurance is not a need-based program. You have to qualify.”

The unemployment office is still in the process of hiring new call center staff, but Perreira-Eustaquio said the real need is for experienced people who understand the unemployment system.

“We can bring hundreds of people on board and they can answer more calls but they can’t get to answering the specific questions,” she said.

The state brought on volunteers to help with the unemployment surge last year and Perreira-Eustaquio said while they were helpful at the time, today the office is still fixing mistakes volunteers made months ago on its aging mainframe.

“To fix that error is a difficult chore,” she said. “It’s not just backspace.”

That’s because the state is still dealing with the same technological challenges it was facing last year. Perreira-Eustaquio said her office is just two months into an 18-month technology upgrade.

The 1980s-era mainframe is so outdated that Perreira-Eustaquio said she doesn’t know how many claims are being adjudicated at any given time because she can’t pull that data off the system.

“I wish I had a number for that. I just don’t have those numbers,” she said.

Jamie Taamu, one of the moderators for a Facebook group dedicated to supporting unemployed Hawaii residents, said that the inability to reach the state’s unemployment office remains a huge issue.

People with accents have struggled with the new voice-activated line that’s intended to deter robocallers, she said. Others who aren’t computer literate often turn to the group to ask for help with filling out online forms.

Taamu is back at work now at an auto body shop, but said even when she tried to apply for a job at the unemployment call center she ran into communication issues.

“I feel like the phone interview went very well but there was just no reply from DLIR … No reject letter, email, call, nothing,” Taamu said.

Perreira-Eustaquio said she’s not sure why some people get through to the unemployment call center and others don’t.

“It’s hard on the heart because you feel for every single person who comes in.” — DLIR director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio

JoAnn Farias is one of the lucky ones. The Kapolei resident called and reached the unemployment office on April 9 and was told that she might have been overpaid and should wait for a call from a claims examiner.

Since then, it’s been nearly two months of silence and anxiety.

“There’s no call, there’s no email, there’s no mail,” she said. “Are we saying thousands of dollars or $50? I don’t know.”

Some days she’ll call 50 times in one day to try to get more information. Other days she thinks, “I’m not going to sit here and do that. I’ve got other stuff to do.”

She feels lucky to have been called back to work, albeit at fewer hours. At age 66, she’s also grateful that she can receive Social Security payments.

Still, the uncertainty is stressful.

“I don’t like owing or the thought of owing so I’m stressing out about what I owe,” she said. “It seems like if I owe, tell us what I owe.”

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