By Mark Lester E. Ranchez
Four weeks have trickled by since I was laid off from my full-time job, and still I haven’t received a single penny out of my unemployment benefits. This could have been understandable, if a little inconvenient, predicament, if not for the vexing reason that the state’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ (DLIR) website is still completely inaccessible, not to mention the ever-busy telephone lines at the claims offices, not even allowing anyone to pass through the first ring.
That the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC), a value of $600 to be distributed weekly in addition to the unemployment benefits received from employers, which has already started being disbursed on April 4, won’t even reach my direct deposit account until my initial claim is approved (if approved) is just as infuriating as it is frustrating— getting through the portal is just a painful impossibility, the only way anyone can file weekly claims and check their unemployment insurance (UI) status.
In fact, it took me three weeks just to make a profile account and file an initial claim. Shockingly, this seems to be an ordinary feat to others; at least, according to my Facebook friends who had the same exasperating experience. They urged me to “just keep doing it,” as if the program has a mind of its own, and will only budge if you’ve tried hard enough. Granted the economic fallout from the coronavirus epidemic is something on a scale that we have never before encountered, but a month has already gone by since the state lockdown—a month of open opportunity to act—and yet, still, we’re in the same dire situation, if not worsening in the state’s ever-growing unemployment rate.
Since the beginning of March, Hawaii has accumulated more than 225,000 UI claims, yet only a short of 73,000 have been paid out so far by the department, and more than 180,000 are still waiting to be sorted out.
Scott Murakami, director of the department, admits that antiquated technology (i.e. mainframe computers developed as early as 1980s!), scarcity of workers, and an “overwhelmed system” are the primary culprit in the backlogging of tens of thousands of unemployment claims. Behind curtains, the process is far more complex. Normally there are seven people processing about a thousand claims a day, cross-checking all records of employers making payroll tax payments for the applicant, with the work history the applicant put down in the application. Most common problem comes when the two figures don’t match, and with the influx of tens of thousands of applications a day, it takes a great deal for a few hands to complete them as quickly as needed.
Thankfully, and hopefully, in the upcoming weeks, Murakami promises things will improve as upgrades are underway: training more volunteers, hopefully quadrupling the number of current workers; opening up spaces for calling centers; and updating technology.
To date, I continue to try to log into my Hawaii UI account (for the thousandth time), and still the website says, in red, stubborn letters: “We are experiencing high traffic. Please wait a few moments before trying again.” Yet, I persist!
One thing is for sure, though, Murakami promises, that so long as one is eligible for unemployment benefits, they will receive their full benefit from the date of separation.