The lava has stopped. But for those who lost their jobs, the disaster is far from over

Residents impacted by Kilauea eruption face disaster unemployment benefits backlog

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Kilauea is no longer spewing lava, but many Big Island residents who lost their jobs during the eruption are still trying to recover.

Dozens of people who qualified for disaster unemployment benefits were caught up in a backlog of claims.

The major disaster declaration by President Donald Trump includes disaster unemployment assistance for Hawaii County. The program is for people living or working in the affected area who became unemployed due to the eruption and do not qualify for regular unemployment benefits.

Massage therapist Jacob Tuft lives in Kalapana Seaview and lost most of his business when Kilauea started erupting in May.

“A lot of the locals in my area left due to the fumes and stuff so that portion of my client base left, and then the road was blocked so tourists couldn’t get into my office,” Tuft said.

Other neighborhoods that he used to serve were either covered by lava or became difficult to reach.

Since Tuft is self-employed, he applied for unemployment assistance in June. He said he finally received retroactive payments nearly four months later.

“Things were tight and lean and uncomfortable, and now we just have a little breathing room to do some things like change our roof that we needed to,” said Tuft.

State officials said 190 people applied for disaster unemployment benefits, which are paid for with federal funds.

Eighty-nine of them qualified, 73 were deemed ineligible, and 14 claims are still pending. Another 14 people qualified for regular unemployment benefits.

The average wait time to receive disaster unemployment payments is 9 1/2 weeks, according to the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

“These were, because they were unusual, took more on the ground exchange of information, getting documents, investigation by the staff,” said DLIR Director Leonard Hoshijo.

There are 13 workers in the Hilo claims office, according to state officials.

“They were given the money for the claims, but they weren’t given any resources to process them and it was a much lengthier processing than a normal claim so they’ve just been super slow in getting through the backlog,” said Tuft.

The staffing depends on the unemployment rate, which is currently 3.0% in Hawaii County.

“Regular staff, which is down now, they actually lose staff when unemployment goes down, was pretty stretched,” said Hoshijo.

Funds from the U.S. Department of Labor have been used to pay out more than $370,872 in benefits to date. The Disaster Assistance Period runs for 27 weeks, through Nov. 10.

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