HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Nearly 27,000 unemployed workers in Hawaii exhausted their 26 weeks of state jobless benefits in September, in a stark reminder of just how long the state has been grappling with the economic fallout of COVID-19.
The good news: A federally-funded program will pay up to 13 additional weeks of unemployment benefits, as long as they apply for it, and then a state extended benefit program will kick in.
But the figures still place new urgency on efforts to reboot the state’s ailing economy, which has seen tens of thousands of layoffs and hundreds of business closures since March.
Anne Eustaquio, state Labor Department director, said the number of people exhausting benefits will only continue to climb.
“We’re starting to see a large number of claimants file for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, or PEUC the 13-week extension, as more claimants exhaust their 26 weeks of regular unemployment insurance benefits,” she said.
“The biggest challenge we have now involves claimants not answering phone calls from unemployment insurance staff due to phone network services identify the calls as spam."
The number of people who exhausted aid in September is a huge uptick from previous months. For perspective, the total number of people who used up all of their state unemployment benefits from January through September is about 32,000.
In August, 1,126 workers exhausted their jobless aid. In July, it was 754.
Those who have exhausted their state benefits can apply for a special program funded with federal CARES Act dollars that offers up to 13 weeks of additional payments.
That program expires Dec. 31 with a hard cut-off, meaning anyone on the program at that point ― regardless of how many weeks of benefits they’ve received ― won’t get any additional monies. After that, state extended benefits kick in for 13 more weeks.
Eustaquio said applications for the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program are processed in about 21 days. That means there will be a gap between benefits.
The applications must be reviewed, she added, because the federal program requires states to ensure the claimant is not eligible for additional state-funded benefits.
As of late September, the state had paid out nearly 180,000 unemployment claims in the islands. Since March, more than $3.3 billion in jobless aid has been distributed.
Eustaquio said the state has had to borrow about $500 million from the federal government so far to keep unemployment benefits flowing. By the end of the year, the state expects to borrow a total of $1 billion for jobless aid.
[For information on how to apply for that program, click here.]
But while thousands of Hawaii residents continue to struggle receiving unemployment benefits, one group has decided to take legal action against the state.
Cynthia Fite is part of a class action suit being filed on behalf of those who feel they should have been paid unemployment benefits but didn’t.
“We have filed a petition with the Supreme Court of Hawaii requesting it compel the state of Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to process claims and pay long-overdue unemployment benefits to the growing population of unemployed residents,” said Fite.