More changes ahead for unemployment call center as backlog, fraud persist

Always Investigating

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Private contractor Maximus will wrap up its duties at the unemployment call center this week and is scheduled to be replaced by a reduced number of new in-house hires.

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The Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) brought on the private vendor to help when soaring claims and a months-long backlog crippled the state unemployment system in October, 2020. The Department says, a new center is in the works.

“We are spinning up our own brand new call center in-house being trained by professionals here in unemployment insurance,” said DLIR Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio. “We are hoping to spin that up come Monday.”

That means 200 Maximus staff are on their way out. The DLIR is in the process of hiring 100 in-house employees.

“We actually hired 40 somewhat individuals,” said Perreira-Eustaquio. “In this time of process of training, we were down to 25. So we’ve lost that many employees in this short period of time. It’s not a simple job. It’s, it’s taxing on individuals. And so at least we have one-quarter of them who will be working full time answering calls come Monday.”

Another 100 Maximus staff will be replaced by 70 direct DLIR hires to deal with more complicated cases. The changes are discouraging news to tens of thousands of unemployed residents.

“I’ve emailed them, I’ve called them and there’s simply no response,” said one Hawaii resident who has been unemployed since spring, 2020. “It’s like a big giant black hole,”

Always Investigated asked, when can people start to come in for some in-person help?

“I think I’m going to have to go back to my past, you know, thoughts on in-person, I’m quite concerned about the staff, not necessarily about COVID and the pandemic, but the masses of individuals that would be down here at our offices trying to get answers, we would not be able to handle the crowd,” said Perreira-Eustaquio. “I will have to continue to say that we are going to use our brand new Call Center, which I plan this call center to clean up claims. That is my goal.”

Those who are unemployed think there is a middle ground.

“They should do a zoom call, just like we’re doing a zoom call,” the unemployed resident said. “It’ll make people like me feel like there’s somebody on the other end, who’s working with me, who I can email who I can contact.”

Meanwhile, the State has to tee up extensions and another round of the $300-per-week “plus-ups,” starting on Friday, Jan. 2, and ending on Saturday, March 13.

“We should have that up and running I’m being told maybe in the next week or so,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. That’s being programmed into the system right now.”

The DLIR is also working to stave off a massive tax hike on beleaguered employers who will see Unemployment Insurance rates skyrocket without a legislative fix due to nearly a year’s worth of claims by tens of thousands of people draining the coffers. The claims have made the State borrow $700 million from the federal government that has to be paid back.

This is all while fraud continues to plague the system.

“People are still trying to get through now on the unemployment and try the regular unemployment process,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. “We are seeing much, much more fraud than we have in the past.”

Always Investigated asked, is the problem impersonation fraud — or are real people trying to get money that they are not entitled to?

“Impersonation fraud, imposter fraud,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. “And so they’re getting better and better at what they do.”

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