Tens of thousands laid off in Hawaii face losing health insurance benefits

Updated: Mar. 27, 2020 at 5:47 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Amid the state shutdown, celebrity chef Lee Anne Wong tried limiting hours and services at her restaurant, Koko Head Cafe.

It was take-out only last week, but the cost to do that out-paced revenue.

She said that left her with a difficult decision to make.

“It’s costing us $1,000 a day to stay open, what’s it going to cost to pay everybody’s health insurance until the end of April?" she said.

Wong paid the April premiums for her workers then had to lay them off. “It was tough," she said.

New jobless claims are hitting record levels for the state. Some 14,339 were filed on Thursday alone..

So far this week, there have been 81,410 unemployment filings and that doesn’t include Friday’s numbers, which are not available yet.

Unemployment numbers for the week
Unemployment numbers for the week(Dept. of Labor & Industrial Relations)

Scott Murakami, the director of the State Labor and Industrial Relations office, said most companies do pay the health insurance premiums for workers a month in advance so some are covered through April.

But the COVID-19 shutdowns could last longer than the April 30 target date.

That means a lot of people could be unemployed and uninsured during a pandemic.

The new relief package passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump offers businesses and workers some more options — but the help will take time to kick in.

“It will extend the benefit period to 39 weeks as opposed to 26 weeks, so that’s an additional 13 weeks," Murakami said, adding that the package calls for an extra $600 for the claimant.

It also covers workers that traditionally may not be covered by unemployment, including independent contractors like Uber and Lyft drivers and others who file a 1099 tax form.

Murakami says those people should apply now. To get the online form, click here.

The overwhelming number of new claims have some worried about the turnaround time to get their unemployment checks.

Before the outbreak, that turnaround time was two weeks. Now, Murakami says it’s more like three to four weeks.

He wants people who are filing to know they will get an email confirmation after the initial claim has moved on to the next phase. He asked for patience as he continues to add staff to speed up the process.

Justin Young, the general manager at Koko Head Cafe, was taking care of last minute business ahead of the restaurant’s closure. He is hopeful the cafe can reopen in May.

“Even when we do reopen we don’t know what that’s going to be like. If social distancing rules are still going to be in place that might cut our seating capacity by 50%.”

Young said he’s worked many years in the restaurant business and has never faced such uncertainty, industry-wide.

He says many are scared with health and economic concerns due to COVID-19.

Young wants people to remember the small businesses that are still open and suggests sharing some aloha.

“If it’s just stopping by a local coffee shop to say ‘hi’ on your way to or from your home office, every little bit helps, smiles help," he said.

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