Hawaii government struggling with idle workers due to virus

HONOLULU — Hawaii’s state government is attempting to determine how to make more workers productive amid prohibitions on less essential work that cannot be done during the coronavirus outbreak.

Some state senators were frustrated after learning executive branch leaders are unaware how many workers are being paid to do nothing instead of being redeployed or furloughed, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Wednesday.


The state government is one of Hawaii’s largest employers, with about 73,000 workers.

Democratic state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole expressed outrage Tuesday during a Special Senate Committee about the coronavirus outbreak.

Keohokalole wants idled workers to help the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which lacks enough staff to process unemployment claims quickly as job losses mount.

During the first four weeks of March, Hawaii received 116,916 new unemployment claims.

Keohokalole asked Ryker Wada, director of the state Department of Human Resources Development, why the labor department cannot use inactive workers to help issue unemployment checks to private citizens who cannot work remotely and have been laid off due to nonessential status.

Redeploying state workers is challenging and Wada does not yet have figures of state employees who are continuing normal work, working remotely or not working while remaining on the payroll, he said.

Wada could not give a timetable for obtaining the information because the figures are being compiled by individual state departments with thousands of employees, he said.

“We have been working on this diligently since COVID has taken off,” Wada said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

The undetermined timetable seemed particularly frustrating for several senators on the committee who said they requested the breakdown three weeks ago.


None of the idle state employees have been furloughed and using them for other purposes could be complicated by collective bargaining rules, Wada said.

Democratic Gov. David Ige issued an emergency proclamation March 5 allowing him to suspend statutes, including one covering collective bargaining. But Ige has not executed the suspension to shift workers into different roles, Wada said.

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