More than a year and a half after Hawaii shut down government offices in response to the pandemic, the state’s unemployment insurance office finally plans to open for in-person visits.

Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said Wednesday that the office will begin allowing walk-ins starting on Dec. 1.

“We’re expanding our services to include the in-person services because of the decrease in Covid cases and because of the increase in vaccination rates and to stay in line with the governor’s plan to start to slowly reopen but still be cautious,” she said.

Princess Ruth Keelikolani Building DLIR.
Hawaii residents who have struggled to access unemployment benefits have been frustrated with the lack of in-person access to help. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The office will be open to walk-ins on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, she said. Mondays and Tuesdays will continue to be reserved for phone appointments, which Perreira-Eustaquio has said have been effective in addressing the backlog.

A previous planned opening on Sept. 7 was delayed due to the delta variant surge.

But Perreira-Eustaquio expressed confidence that the conditions were set for a safe reopening.

“As case counts drops and vaccination rates are at a very high level I’m feeling much more comfortable about providing that safety for the staff and the community and providing services,” she said, noting that the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has a staff of more than 600 people.

Walking into the unemployment office will be different from doing so in the pre-Covid era. Visitors will need to present proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test within the prior 72 hours and they’ll need to abide by social distancing and face mask requirements. Staff are also subject to the state’s mandate to be vaccinated or test negative for the virus.

The office’s continued closure has been a source of frustration to Hawaii residents who lost jobs during pandemic shutdowns and struggled to access help with applications for unemployment insurance.

In September, Civil Beat reported that less than 7% of calls to the state’s unemployment line were answered, and Hawaii ranked as the fourth-worst state or territory in terms of how fast unemployment payments were made.

Hawaii has struggled with record-high unemployment during the pandemic, but people who need help in-person have been limited to phone or email. An online system launched over the summer helped people make phone appointments for the first time in the pandemic, but workers’ advocates have said having a walk-in option is important because not everyone is computer literate.

The state’s unemployment rate has fallen significantly since hitting 22.3% in April 2020. In September, Hawaii’s unemployment rate was 6.6%, less than half of the year prior, when it was more than 14%.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is becoming more manageable and other government offices have already reopened.

Hawaii reported 176 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, with a seven-day daily average of 108, and three new Covid deaths. Daily case counts have fallen significantly since the delta surge, but state epidemiologist Sarah Kemble cautions that she still expects to see future surges.

Vaccinations are way up as well, with 71.5% of the state’s population, and 84% of eligible residents aged 12 and up, fully inoculated. That has prompted the state and county officials to ease Covid restrictions on gatherings.

Perreira-Eustaquio said the unemployment office is waiting until Dec. 1 to open to allow time to hire additional security, change their appointment system to fit the new schedule and coordinate with the Department of Taxation, which is also reopening in the same building.

“We’re excited that we’re opening,” she said. “We’re hoping that waiting for Dec. 1 will put everything in place so that we can provide (residents) with the best service possible and a safe place to come.”

Perreira-Eustaquio previously has said that she kept the office closed to walk-ins out of concern for staff safety, not just from Covid but from residents frustrated with the unemployment system. That’s one reason why the agency is hiring additional security to ensure the opening of walk-in appointments goes well.

The unemployment office is also planning to transition out of the Hawaii Convention Center in mid-November and be completely out of the center by the end of December, she said. The agency set up a call center there to help respond to overwhelming demand during the pandemic.

Yoko Liriano, who helps lead the Hawaii Workers Center, which has been pushing for the agency to reopen to in-person visits for more than a year, said she applauds the unemployment office for listening to community calls to reopen.

“It’s really important that everyone has access to a public service that they pay for,” Liriano said. “It’s their right. This is not a privilege. It’s a right.”

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