Updated: 3/27/20, 4:50 p.m.
More than 97,000 new unemployment claims have been filed in Hawaii since March 1st. Workers in the restaurant and hotel industries have been some of the hardest hit.
The numbers are stark. Scott Murakami, director of the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, says Hawaii is already experiencing a huge surge in unemployment.
“Yesterday alone, we received 20,041 new filings,” he said, speaking on Wednesday.
It’s hard to overstate how substantial an increase that represents. Twenty thousand new claims in one day is more than the total number of unemployed statewide during most of 2019, which ran around 19,000 people.
Restaurants were some of the first businesses to lay off workers. Carolyn Madrid Tagle was recently laid off from her job at a restaurant in the Honolulu airport.
“Last week Thursday, they told us we were shutting down for 14 to15 days. Now they’re saying the end of April. So more, you starting thinking about survival,” Tagle said. Her husband worked at the same restaurant and also lost his job.
Unemployment insurance is supposed to help cover at least some of their survival needs. The money comes from the federal government, but is administered by states.
Tagle says she and her coworkers have had major issues filing for unemployment through the Hawaii Department of Labor.
“So far out of 30 to 40 of us, only like 2 or 3 got through,” she told HPR.
Labor Director Murakami says the department’s aging system was simply overwhelmed by the volume of applications and they are working through the backlog. DLIR was in the process up upgrading the system when the coronavirus pandemic struck, leaving the state’s unemployment insurance system vulnerable.
The labor department has since launched a new online application form open during certain hours and added additional staff to process claims. There are now 45 claims processers, up from seven a few weeks ago.
Murakami is also organizing volunteers to work through the backlog by answering phones and calling applicants who need to give the state additional information.
Although there have been delays in processing claims based on the sheer volume of applications, he urges residents not to file multiple requests.
“There’s no need to file multiple claims. That’s not going to help. In fact, it may cause our system to fail when we back-process it, so please do not file multiple claims.”
Murakami has also taken the step of closing unemployment offices to the public. He says this is an effort to protect his staff, who are the only people ensuring Hawaii workers have access to unemployment benefits.
But even for those workers who have gotten through, it may still not be enough.
Maria Cainguitan works as a housekeeper in a Waikiki hotel closing on Friday. One of her co-workers, who was already laid off, successfully filed for unemployment.
“She will receive approximately $620. I don’t think that is sufficient for every worker applying for unemployment,” Cainguitan said by phone.
Currently, unemployment benefits are available for 26 weeks and the weekly payment is calculated as a percentage of a worker’s previous income.
A massive, $2 trillion federal aid package would increase payments by as much as $600 per week – and extend coverage by an additional 13 weeks.
The expanded program will also cover groups like freelancers, part-timers and gig workers, who previously may not have qualified.