Hawaii Labor Department scraps plan to reopen state unemployment offices, citing COVID-19 spread

·5 min read

Aug. 19—Hawaii labor officials on Wednesday canceled a planned Sept. 7 reopening of unemployment offices statewide for in-person service, citing drastically elevated infection risks.

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced the change on the same day it had previously announced it would allow the public to begin scheduling appointments for in-person assistance.

DLIR officials said record COVID-19 case levels locally pose an unacceptable hazard for handling unemployment claim case issues in person when remote serv ­ices, to be expanded over the next three weeks, will be just as good in most cases.

"It's become extremely difficult to ensure the safety of the community, our customers and our staff as the level of COVID-19 transmission increases within the community, " Anne Perreira ­-Eustaquio, DLIR director, said on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser's livestream show Spotlight Hawaii. "We will not be opening to in-­person appointments on Sept. 7."

The decision to keep unemployment offices closed to the public for an indefinite period reverses a reopening plan announced July 21, and follows a sustained recent spike in COVID-19 cases along with an emergency policy instituted by Gov. David Ige forcing all state employees in executive branch departments, including DLIR, to be vaccinated or test negatively for the virus weekly as of this week.

The state has averaged 680 new cases a day over the past week, up from about 50 a day in early July.

City officials have ordered some reductions to business occupancy limits in response to the increased contagion, and some state entities are beginning to adjust in different ways. For instance, the Hawaii Public Library System on Wednesday began closing all libraries every Wednesday due to high COVID-19 case counts.

DLIR has kept unemployment offices closed to in-person visits since the early days of the pandemic last year, and has been unable to handle an unprecedented flood of unemployment claims and issues with claims by phone or online despite efforts to upgrade an antiquated computer system and expand the ranks of workers who process and adjudicate claims.

As a result, thousands of residents who have had difficulty obtaining unemployment benefits have been frustrated by the overwhelmed agency's operations, including some who have said they made hundreds of unanswered phone calls.

At least five protest rallies urging the reopening of state unemployment offices have been held since November, including three outside DLIR's headquarters, one at the state Capitol and one outside an unemployment call center at the Hawai 'i Convention Center. The long-awaited reopening that was to have begun Sept. 7, the day after Labor Day, would have welcomed walk-in claimants in the mornings and previously scheduled appointments in the afternoons.

As late as last week, department officials had said they were sticking to the reopening plan.

The Rev. Sam Domingo, a steering committee member for the Hawaii Workers Center labor support organization, was surprised and disappointed by DLIR's backtracking on in-person service.

"I just can't believe it, " he said, noting that other government offices in Hawaii remain open to provide crucial services for residents. "This office is not really wanting to put themselves out for our workers. So many (unemployed ) people are still being hung out."

DLIR said it will launch new and expanded by ­-appointment phone serv ­ices over the next three weeks, and that it will be able to help just as many people, or possibly more, this way compared with in-person visits.

"We are actually being able to service the same amount of individuals we would have serviced if we opened up the offices to in-person appointments, " Perreira-Eustaquio said.

A backlog of unemployment claims requiring assistance still exists, but has shrunk dramatically, according to Perreira ­-Eustaquio, in part because Hawaii's unemployment rate has improved to 7.7 % in June from 14.7 % in the same month last year.

DLIR could not say on Wednesday how many such claims there are because of limitations on a mainframe computer and the constant creation and resolution of claim issues.

Two new planned serv ­ices will offer appointments to help with Pandemic Unemployment Assistance claims and employer services over the phone starting Sept. 7. Appointments can be made starting Tuesday.

The agency also plans to expand by-appointment phone service for general unemployment claim inquiries to five days a week from the current three days a week starting Sept. 7.

DLIR officials said 525 appointments will be available weekly on Oahu after the change, up from 84 previously. The number of slots statewide after the expansion will be 1, 155 a week.

Last week, the agency announced that a telephone appointment system for claimants to speak with a claims examiner would begin operating Monday.

Help from a call center will continue to be available. The center has been receiving about 500 calls a day, though continual staff turnover exists there and has kept DLIR in hiring mode to fill a persistent average of 30 vacancies recently out of 100 positions.

Perreira-Eustaquio said DLIR maintains a goal to reopen unemployment offices to the public, though when that might be remains undetermined given the coronavirus case situation.

"We will continue to assess the situation and hope to again be able to announce when the new date will be for opening in-­person appointments, " she said.

JOBLESS CLAIMS Appointments for unemployment claim assistance by phone can soon be made at.

General unemployment information is at and.

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