HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Governor David Ige’s current plan to furlough state workers starting next month could further increase the already-maddening lengths of time it takes to process critical services like unemployment.
Only specific bargaining units are exempt from the furloughs, like law enforcement and health care workers. Not exempt from the two unpaid days off per month are those employees assisting the unemployed and uninsured.
The shutdown has left tens of thousands people across the state out of work, and an overwhelmed Labor Department is still struggling to catch up on a backlog of benefit claims.
“So many people have lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. For many of those people, their health care is tied to their jobs, so it’s absolutely critical, it’s always absolutely critical that those people have access to health care,” said Gavin Thornton, the Executive Director of Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice.
Also impacted by Gov. Ige’s furloughs will be those processing Medicaid benefits.
Enrollment in Medicaid has increased 20% since March, when the pandemic began, bringing the number of people on the health program statewide to 392,601.
There has also been a 50% increase in applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and 184,713 people are now enrolled.
“We’re in a crisis. We’re in a worldwide pandemic. We should be adding employees to the public workforce,” said Caroline Sluyter of the Hawaii Government Employees Association. “These are the people that provide the services.”
Sluyter said furloughs are premature: “A vaccine is here. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”
She also says a stimulus package from Congress will likely help the economy recover over the course of 2021. But Governor David Ige says the state is facing unprecedented shortfalls, and his furlough plan will save $300M next year.
The Labor Department and Department of Human Services are expected to ask the Governor for exemptions for workers, but his office said that process is ongoing.
“Across-the-board cuts are an absolute disaster,” said Thornton, “If cuts need to be made, they really need to be done in a targeted, strategic way.”
Top state economist Carl Bonham of the UH Economic Research Organization said there are other ways to make up the shortfall.
“We ought to look at the possibility of selling off some state assets,” Bonham said.
Bonham realizes that can be a touchy subject but points out that valuable land, like the site of the former Liliuokalani Elementary School, could wipe out losses.
“When you have a hole that big, if you can fill it by selling off a couple parcels... I mean $300 million, you can raise $300 million by selling a piece of land in this state,” Bonham said.
The property is prime real estate at the corner of Waialae Avenue and Koko Head Avenue but has been used for offices and storage since the school closed in 2011.