People still struggling to get assistance with PUA benefits

Coronavirus

HONOLULU(KHON2) — More than five months after the state’s first shutdown left nearly a quarter of Hawaii unemployed and the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) overwhelmed, many are still struggling to get unemployment benefits.

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The DLIR said it’s paid out nearly $3 billion dollars in unemployment benefits since March. So far more than 279,000 claims were filed since the pandemic started. More than 171,000 of those have been paid.

Beyond the numbers, it has been an uphill battle for both the DLIR and for those seeking benefits. Officials said they are streamlining the process for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claims–but people like Kimberly Howard-Gillaspie and Jessica Kane are falling through the cracks and want to know what they have to do to get help.

“I’ve been trying for months and I can’t get in at all. So I’m not too sure where to go with that,” said Kane, who works as a wedding planner.

“It’s just frustrating and I know I’m not the only one that is in this same circumstance,” said Howard-Gillaspie, who works as a bookkeeper.

Kane and Howard-Gillaspie are just two of the many people struggling to get assistance with PUA.

In a statement DLIR said:
“DLIR continues to experience a high volume of attempts at fraud in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program. As of September 1, the department received 115,992 applications and processed 111,326 or 96% of the applications.”

That uptick in fraud led to additional identity verification process for those already receiving benefits like Howard-Gillaspie.

“I submitted all of the documentation that they required three times, which also included them wanting a selfie of us holding our picture ID,” she explained.

After her third attempt, she said she received a letter explaining that her photo wasn’t clear enough, that her claim has been denied and that she would have to return the $10,000 she’d already been paid.

“Immediately when I saw it I almost went into cardiac arrest. It’s scary. I don’t have that kind of money right now just sitting around,” Howard-Gillaspie said.

She tried to file an appeal at the UIhelp website, but immediately ran into more roadblocks.

“Their website doesn’t work. I’ve been trying to get through on their support line and it never goes through.”

A DLIR spokesperson said if that happens, make sure you’re using the same email as your PUA account to submit the help ticket. If it still doesn’t work, DLIR said to call any of the local unemployment offices for help.

Another problem–there’s no phone number for PUA assistance.

The DLIR acting director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio said that’s one of the issues they are addressing.

“We’re working right now with preparing that process and getting people online with a virtual call center to service those claimants who need to call in for both regular unemployment insurance as well as PUA.”

Perreira-Eustaquio did not say exactly when the PUA phone line will be up-and-running.

The unemployment call center DLIR set up inside the Hawaii Convention Center to assist with questions regarding claims ended on Aug. 1.

The slow reaction to fix the problems raised since PUAs inception and since the pandemic started are of little consolation to those struggling to make ends meet.

“I’ve submitted everything that they’ve requested,” Howard-Gillaspie said. “If I’m able to get a passport and I’m able to get my drivers license, why can’t we get the benefits that we’re entitled to?”

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