Labor director talks jobless benefits

  • MURAKAMI

The state director of Labor and Industrial Relations told the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce Wednesday the Unemployment Insurance Division hopes this week to roll out federal jobless benefits for the self-employed and independent contractors who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an online forum hosted by the chamber’s Young Professionals, Scott Murakami said contractors are going over unemployment insurance data and tax data “to make sure we can verify it and validate it” for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, benefits.

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Murakami said that, initially, all PUA claimants who qualify will be paid the minimum unemployment insurance amount, $263 weekly, plus the $600 weekly federal “plus-up” benefits. He added that claimants entitled to more than the $263 minimum should “submit additional documentation for it.”

“It could be things like contracts you have, business records, any bank receipts or deposits you have that document the amount you receive as net income,” Murakami noted.

According to Murakami, PUA claimants are required to have “absolutely no wages” that would appear on a W-2 form from a covered employer.

Claimants also must be denied benefits through the regular unemployment insurance program to be eligible for PUA, Murakami said.

Murakami said the best thing employers can do for workers laid off because of the pandemic is “to help them file their claim.”

“The reason is, a lot of times, a business may … be doing business under another name, and the employee may not understand that,” he said. “… There’s a lot of nuances to making sure that the data … is correct when (employees are) filing their initial application.”

According to Murakami, differences in information submitted by claimants and employers cause claims to be rejected, resulting in delays paying qualified claimants.

“If your separation from duty was because an individual quit, or because of a disciplinary reason or fraud, they would not be able to benefit from any of the programs that we have, either from the UI or the PUA programs or the additional plus-up dollars,” he said.

According to Murakami, the state’s unemployment trust fund is projected to dry up on about June 11, but Hawaii has been approved for a line of credit from the U.S. Department of Labor through the Treasury, and will “draw down” on that credit line to continue paying claimants.

That federal loan will be interest-free through the end of the year.

“We don’t anticipate any interruptions in benefit payments to the claimants,” he said.

Fielding a question about the lack of PUA expertise of one of 350-plus nonessential state workers who accepted a move to the Unemployment Insurance Division to field calls from claimants, Murakami replied, “They are volunteers. We were not prepared for this at all, not just as a department, but as a state.”

Murakami said the division is working under federal guidelines with only seven regular employees whose job is to field those calls. He added that to operate under federal regulations costs about $16 million, which the feds are supposed to pay — but the state is receiving only about $13 million in operating costs.

“For us, the volunteers are the solution. They’re not a part of the problem,” Murakami said.

“The problem is: Why do we have these types of antiquated systems?” he added, rhetorically. “… I’ve got to be clear about this, because everybody’s helping out to solve the problem — the Legislature, the administration, our congressional delegation. Everyone’s trying to help out.”

Murakami said it’s the U.S. Department of Labor’s responsibility for “ensuring that we have the necessary resources as a state to run” the Unemployment Insurance Division.

He added that the feds’ solution to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic has been to “push more money to us and tell us, well, we’re going to give you more benefits in ways where we can’t even pay it out.”

According to DLIR, through Wednesday, 232,489 claims had been uploaded into the mainframe computer.

Of those, 158,930, or 68.4% have been processed, with 117,166, or 73.1% of processed claims being paid. Another 41,784 claims have been denied.

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In addition, another 73,539, or 31.6% are being processed.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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