Hawaii makes big dent in jobless claim backlog, but the call center remains overwhelmed

·4 min read

Feb. 20—State officials this week processed 30, 000 requests for 11-week extensions on unemployment benefits, making a significant dent in a backlog of claims filed by Hawaii's jobless who are struggling to pay rent and make ends meet amid the ongoing economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.

The extension of the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program was approved by the federal government in December, but Hawaii labor officials said technical problems with the state's computer system had delayed its start.

Hawaii typically provides 26 weeks of unemployment benefits, but the federal government has twice extended those benefits, by 13 weeks and then again by 11 weeks.

Despite the progress by the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, Hawaii's jobless trying to fix glitches in their unemployment claims continue to face frustrations. The state's call center at the Hawai 'i Convention Center remains swamped a year into the pandemic, with people calling throughout the day but unable to get through. Emails to the labor department go unanswered.

And it's unlikely that state labor officials will open their offices for in-person visits for people seeking additional help anytime soon, even though Hawaii is vaccinating essential state workers. The department's director remains concerned that local offices would be overwhelmed by thousands of angry, unemployed residents, imperiling her employees' safety.

"Until we can get the workload under control, my concern is the safety of our staff because of the magnitude of individuals, " DLIR Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio on Friday. "We would have thousands of people coming down to these very small, local offices—individuals who are not very happy. They need to be paid. They are anxious. They understandably are upset because they have not yet received their unemployment insurance benefits. And it is the safety of the staff because of the crowds—we wouldn't be able to handle those crowds."

Perreira-Eustaquio said the biggest backlog in claims currently involves people who have erroneously received unemployment insurance payments. Until those overpayments are resolved, the claimant can't receive additional benefits. Those errors must be resolved manually with an adjudicator contacting employers and claimants. The causes of the overpayments are wide-ranging. In some cases a laid-off worker was receiving ongoing payments from a former employer because of federal aid or reimbursement for paid time off, while also receiving an unemployment check.

Perreira-Eustaquio said she's putting together a team to focus specifically on the overpayments and said the backlog in jobless claims has decreased dramatically. But the department couldn't provide figures for how many people are still waiting for their claims to be processed or errors resolved. The labor department is still struggling to produce accurate reports on such figures from its aging computer system, said DLIR spokesman William Kunstman.

The state hasn't been able to handle the onslaught of jobless claims since the coronavirus pandemic hit in February 2020, sending Hawaii's unemployment rate soaring to a high of about 24 % in April, as the state and counties implemented lockdowns on businesses, public gatherings and recreation. The state's unemployment rate stood at 9.3 % at the end of the year.

The state opened a call center at the Hawai 'i Convention Center in April to handle the mounting claims. In October the labor department brought on a private company called Maximus to help, but that contract mostly ended in January and the state has been bringing on a new cohort of local workers. Currently, there are about 100 call agents and 75 adjudicators. There are also Maximus staff who continue to work as adjudicators, said Kunstman, but the department didn't immediately know how many.

The department also couldn't say how many calls it is receiving daily or how many agents are needed to handle the volume.

In October the Star-Advertiser that the call center run by Maximus was receiving about 150, 000 calls a day, or roughly 300 calls a minute. The calls were from an estimated 8, 000 people, meaning people were calling multiple times just trying to get through to an agent.

At that time, Perreira-­Eustaquio said 200 agents was largely inadequate to handle so many callers.

The department is trying to compile similar data to what Maximus had provided in the past.

Speaking on Spotlight Hawaii, Perreira-Eustaquio said the department is doing the best it can. "I don't think individuals out there realize how extremely hard the staff is working, " she said. "They spend more hours here than with their families."

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