Unemployment in Hawaii tops 37% as coronavirus shutdown continues

Updated: Apr. 16, 2020 at 5:15 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - More than 1 in 3 workers in Hawaii has lost a job as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown, new figures from the state Labor Department show.

And a new state-by-state analysis shows Hawaii is among the state’s hardest hit by shutdown orders.

That’s because many of those laid off are connected to the tourism industry, which has been at a standstill since stay-at-home orders went into effect followed by travel-related quarantines.

In February, Hawaii’s workforce was about 651,000 strong, and unemployment was just 2.7% ― far below the national average.

From March 1 to Thursday, the number of unemployment claims filed in the islands stands at a staggering 244,330. That puts the state at more than 37% unemployment.

The abrupt shutdown isn’t just hurting Hawaii. Nationwide, 22 million have filed for benefits.

Economists do expect a rebound when businesses are allowed to reopen but right now, there’s no direct timeline.

This week, Gov. David Ige joined a national call with other governors and the White House on how states can begin to reopen. The president has said parts of the US could begin relaxing strict social distancing measures before others. The decision will still ultimately be up to each state.

The sudden wave of shutdowns crippled unemployment offices everywhere. In Florida, thousands of people trying to file were forced to stand in long lines that wrapped around the building.

Hawaii’s unemployment office systems crashed for days ― unable to handle to influx.

On Thursday, state Reps. Scott Saiki, Sylvia Luke and Aaron Johanson all showed up at the Punchbowl unemployment office to volunteer.

They’re getting trained along with members of their staff "so that we can get a handle on this critical mass and reduce it and help get benefits out quickly,” said Jonanson, who is on the Labor and Public Employment Committee.

The group will start taking shifts next Monday.

All say their constituents have expressed frustration and are desperately waiting for the checks to arrive.

State lawmakers have been critical of Ige and the Department of Human Resources Development for not sending reinforcements.

Luke said she pushed for other state workers who are forced to stay home but are unable to telework to join the unemployment office long term, but that requires approval and that has not yet happened.

Scott Murakami, the director of the Department of Labor, says money is being disbursed but not as quickly as he’d like.

On an average Wednesday, his office would process $451,000.

But this Wednesday, the office processed $2.6 million in claims.

The Department of Labor also launched a new email address Wednesday, specifically for those who have had a claim denied. For that email, click here.

Earlier this week another website was launched for those who successfully filed a claim and want to know the status. For that site, click here.

As many as 785 people clicked that website in one minute Wednesday and it is accessible 24 hours a day, unlike the phone banks.

The office also announced new guidance for paying independent contractors or those who file tax form 1099. Usually, those workers do not qualify for jobless benefits, but the federal government is allowing it during the shutdown through a program referred to as PUA, which stands for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.

The temporary program provides up to 39 weeks of unemployment benefits to individuals who are not eligible for regular Unemployment Insurance and have limited, recent work history.

The state office now has the rules on distributing those funds and are in the process of setting up a web portal for the independent contractors.

That system is expected to launch in early May and payments are retroactive.

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