Unemployment office in limbo along with thousands of filers

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — Lawmakers say they continue to look for ways to support the state’s Unemployment division, as unpaid claims continue to pile up and the department director is on leave.

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has not reported updated pandemic-period claim numbers for more than a week, saying they’ve had to weed through unreliable data on an old system.

A deputy director is now in charge after DLIR Director Scott Murakami took a temporary leave of absence starting last week, having faced a barrage of threats including on his life. Murakami had a sheriff’s deputy escort for the past month. Overnight Monday, a vandal shattered a front door at the still-closed Honolulu labor office. Neighbor Island offices have had the National Guard on hand for weeks for extra security.

More than 125,000 people are still claiming weekly unemployment payments nearing three months into the COVID shutdown, and at last count more than 62,000 initial claims dating back to early spring were still unresolved.

The department’s spokesperson says Murakami isn’t talking while out, and says they want to keep the deputy out of the news for her safety, so we asked lawmakers: What’s next?

“The deputy who has stepped up is very confident,” said Rep. Della Au Belatti, (D) Makiki. “So moving forward as we continue to deal with the struggles of U.I., there’s what’s happening with the leadership, but we also have to make sure that the department as a whole is being supported, and that’s one of the focuses of the legislature.”

Always Investigating asked lawmakers: Are you inclined in the legislature to start to set some firm deadlines for wrapping up at least those initial claims? How much longer can tens of thousands go unfinished?

“The system can only go as fast as the system can go,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi. “Unfortunately most of the claims that haven’t been paid out are now at that level where they are complicated and they take anywhere from 45 minutes or an hour on the phone to get resolved. As far as setting deadlines, that’s not within the purview of the legislature to tell an administrative department when and what they have to do.”

Lawmakers are worried about impending deadlines from elsewhere. The $600 weekly in extra federal relief lasts only through July.

“As we move forward we’re going to see a cliff in the PUA (Pandemic Unemployment Assistance) payments,” Belatti said, “and we have a lot of issues on our plate to be dealing with.”

The labor department is still trying to get a grip on a fraud ring using false-impersonation filings using sometimes very prominent Hawaii people’s names. The department spokesperson tells me they don’t have a number of possible victims, how much was wrongfully paid out, or results on efforts to get that money back.

“The troubling aspects of the fraud that are happening are the very reasons why we have the checks and balances that we do have,” Belatti said.

Kouchi says as soon as the legislature adjourned last month, a memo went out asking employees who had the training to go help process unemployment

“There were new training classes offered if there were others who wanted to go in,” Kouchi said. “There are still other departmental people there, and there’s still 150 to 200 people at the convention center every day trying to process through the claims.”

Lawmakers say people in need should continue to use all the other safety nets, too, things like food and cash assistance, and any covid-related state and county relief programs.

As for getting a handle on the number of claims again, the labor department spokesperson says they will very likely begin reporting again tomorrow.

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