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Unemployment Call Center Averages 150,000 Daily Calls During First Week

Casey Harlow / HPR

One week after the launch of a call center meant to address the backlog of Hawaii unemployment claims, filers are still reporting problems getting through.

Hawaii residents who called the state’s new unemployment hotline this week were greeted by an unwelcome message informing them that there were no representatives available, before dropping the call.

More than 180,000 claims for unemployment insurance were filed with the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations in recent days.

The new call center, launched last week by Gov. David Ige and Labor Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, was meant to help clear the backlog of claims. At the announcement, Perreira-Eustaquio said her department had 8,000 first-time claims to process, on top of regular renewals and applications for special Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

But in it’s first week, the center received an average of 150,000 incoming calls per day, according to DLIR. In a written statement, a department spokesperson said many of those calls were people using auto-dialing apps that overwhelmed the system.

DLIR now says it has worked with the vendor managing the call center to correct the problem.

While the center will ultimately have 200 staff by the end of the month, there were only 50 personnel available to take calls this week. One filer contacted by HPR reported being given a wait time of longer than 24 hours when calling the hotline.

Timing is compounding the problem. Unemployment benefits normally expire after 26 weeks, meaning the roughly 200,000 Hawaii workers who first lost their jobs in March and April are all trying to file for the federally-approved extension around the same time.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, provides funds for an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits under a program known as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

Unemployed workers are required to let their normal benefits expire before being eligible for PEUC, so state labor officials are contending with a large surge of new applications.

A spokesperson for the state labor department said it currently takes an average of 21 calendar days to process extension requests and initial unemployment claims.

Qualifying for unemployment is a requirement for accessing other state and federal benefits, like the $300 weekly Lost Wage Assistance payment, expanded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits, and the Hawaii restaurant card, which provides a $500 credit that can be used at local restaurants.

The delays and lost benefits are starting to squeeze out-of-work residents. Survey data from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization indicate that thousands more households now report falling behind on rent than before the pandemic.

However, there was a silver lining.

Three-quarters of landlords who responded to the survey reported a willingness to negotiate some kind of payment plan with their tenants.

A full 40% even said they would be willing to lower rent to keep a tenant housed.

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