The state’s overwhelmed phone line handling general unemployment inquiries has been shut down following a positive COVID-19 test result for one of the staffers at the Hawaii Convention Center call center.

Some 85 staff members were sent home as contact tracing starts and the call center gets a deep clean, according to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. “Normal operations” aren’t expected to resume until Monday, a DLIR press release stated.

People with inquiries regarding the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, or PUA, and those reporting fraud and identity theft can still call, it added.

DLIR has been using space at the Hawaii Convention Center since the pandemic began to field calls and process claims. Courtesy: DLIR

“This is yet another reminder that we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, and we have to ensure the safety of our public servants who continue to provide critical services,” DLIR Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio said in the release.

Thousands of Hawaii residents continue to struggle in obtaining their UI benefits, with many reporting a months-long wait for claims issues to get resolved and payments to go out. The DLIR’s offices have been closed to the public since the onset of the pandemic, leaving the phone line as one of the few ways to contact the agency.

The line is often clogged with calls, with UI claimants saying it can be almost impossible to get through. Call center staff can only provide limited help for those claimants who do get through, especially those grappling with complex claims and job-separation issues.

All UI staff, including those working at the convention center, were given priority in the state’s vaccination rollout plan, according to DLIR spokesman Bill Kuntsman. The state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in February was 9.2%, the agency reported Thursday.

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