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Unemployment phone bank dismantled, giving those seeking help with claims few options

Updated: Aug. 19, 2020 at 5:33 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations is hiring. About 80 people are needed to help with unemployment claims.

That’s far less than the hundreds of volunteers who staffed the Hawaii Convention Center phone bank, which shut down at the beginning of August.

“They needed to go back to the jobs that they were hired to do, so we lost a lot of volunteers,” said department acting Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio.

The loss means calls to the hotline, 586-8970, are being kicked over to the individual claims offices statewide. “Those are the same individuals at work on processing claims, so they’re working on processing claims and answering phones at the same time,” said Eustaquio.

That slows down their work but also limits the amount of calls that can be answered.

Dozens of out-of-work viewers have sent emails to Hawaii News Now complaining that they can’t get through and the system doesn’t allow anyone to leave a message.

The state is now trying to beef up staffing and state Rep. Sylvia Luke, House Finance Committee chairwoman, said DLIR should hire quickly and not have to deal with red tape.

“It’s definitely manpower right now,” Luke said. “A lot of these hired positions can be paid out of CARES Act funds. It’s not funding, it’s clearing the way so they can hire more people.”

There are currently 98 people working on unemployment insurance claims and DLIR wants to hire 49 more.

Meanwhile, the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program for unemployed gig workers is also backlogged. Viewers complained that their PUA claim said, “pending” for weeks.

Eustaquio said fraud continues to be a problem so there is more scrutiny of those claims. PUA also has unique eligibility requirements: The applicant has to prove their job losses were the result of the pandemic.

Currently, there are 50 people working PUA claims and the department is trying to hire 30 more.

Eustaquio said they are working on a system to answer calls from those needing assistance for both PUA or traditional unemployment, but there’s no timeline on when that will be ready.

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