The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations launched a call center to address an ongoing backlog of unemployment claims, but delays are pushing some residents to the brink of financial ruin.
The shops and restaurants lining Kamehameha Highway through Haleiwa were a lot emptier than usual this summer. The small North Shore town is typically a major hub of Hawaii’s tourism economy, but that changed with the near complete halt of global air travel in March.
The shutdown of tourism left thousands workers, in Haleiwa and around the state, without jobs.
One of them was Christina Hilfiker, a restaurant worker in Haleiwa. After being laid off in March, Hilfiker was initially able to enroll for unemployment insurance and food stamps.
In an interview, Hilfiker told HPR that she was getting by on federally-supplemented unemployment, until those benefits expired in September.
Unemployment insurance normally only pays benefits for 26 weeks in a one-year period. Under the federal CARES Act, unemployment benefits have been extended by an additional 13 weeks.
However, that extension is not automatic. Users have to file for that extension with the State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which they can only do after their initial approval expires.
That is where Hilfiker ran into trouble. She said that the state determined she was in fact eligible for an extension of unemployment, but has not yet given her the final approval needed to restart benefits.
“It’s been pending for over two weeks, with no movement, and I cannot get anyone,” Hilfiker said over the phone. “I call a hundred times a day, every day.”
Hilfiker is far from alone. Thousands of Hawaii workers have become ensnared in the bureaucratic morass of the unemployment system. The labor department received roughly 200,000 first-time unemployment claims in March and April, overwhelming the agency’s aging IT infrastructure.
Despite an upgraded computer system and volunteers assembling for surge processing at the Hawaii Convention Center in Honolulu, workers still report problems getting through.
That is partly a workflow issue. The DLIR says the same workers who are answering phones at labor offices are also processing unemployment claims.
To try and address that issue, the department launched a call center last week that will eventually have 200 operators to help clear the backlog. In a remote news conference, Labor Director Anne Pierrera-Eustaquio said she is confident that the call center will be sufficient to address the problem.
“Now we’ll have 200 extra bodies to help pick up those calls. They’re being trained to look at each and every claim and either make a payment, or move them to the next phase of the claim process,” Pierrera-Eustaquio said.
Hawaii Governor David Ige acknowledged that there have been painful delays in getting benefits paid out, but also noted that the state has already processed 95% of unemployment applications.
“On average we are distributing more than 100,000 checks to those who are unemployed and on average we are distributing more than $100 million each and every week,” Ige remarked.
That is of little comfort to people like Christina Hilfiker, who says that she has been pushed to the brink of homelessness and financial ruin by the delay in getting her extension processed.
“I’m sort of hanging on by a thread, relying on friends and family,” Hilfiker explained. “You can get a lot of miles out of a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter.”
She also points out that the bureaucratic delays have in some ways made the unemployment system counterproductive, describing the processes of applying for unemployment benefits as a “full-time job.” Hilfiker noted with frustration that every hour spent trying to secure unemployment is time that she cannot use to find a new job.
The labor department says there are still 8,000 first-time applicants who need a claim evaluated, on top of more than 100,000 regular claims currently filed each week.
The call center may eventually help clear that backlog, but on Friday it appeared to be overwhelmed with calls. Before automatically terminating, a pre-recorded message informed callers that all agents were busy and recommended calling back later.