Jobless claims soar on Big Island, nationwide

The numbers of first-time Big Island unemployment claims filings have skyrocketed in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus epidemic.

Initial claims grew exponentially in the past two weeks of March. Through the first two weeks of the month, there were 413 initial claims filed islandwide. For the week ending March 21, the number of new claims filings shot up to 1,019.


And in the week ending March 28, 6,467 people filed new unemployment claims in Hawaii County.

In the third and fourth weeks of the month, the Hilo office reported 2,974 claims, and Kona tallied 4,512. West Hawaii has the bulk of the island’s tourism and hospitality industries, which are particularly hard-hit by the closures of bars and restaurants, and hotel cancellations due to flight restrictions.

East Hawaii also is feeling the economic sting, but Hilo is the county seat, and both state and county governments have remained fully staffed, although some employees are working from home.

“To the best of my knowledge, we’ve never had anything like this before, not on this kind of scale,” said University of Hawaii at Hilo sociologist Alton Okinaka. “No matter how big disasters or emergencies got, there was some aspect of the economy we could fall back on. Right now, we’ve got nothing.

“The immediate thing that comes to everybody’s mind is tourism. But the fact that we’ve essentially shut down air travel means no tourists. And now that we’ve shut down intrastate travel, we’re not even going to get local tourists.

“To add to that, we’ve shut down all the restaurants and bars.”

According to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, total unemployment filings in March numbered 160,929. Those include some duplicate filings because of problems the department’s online system experienced with the crush of new filings overloading the system. That resulted in some filers not getting immediate confirmation their claim was received and filing again.

“We’ve had to deploy a web form that wasn’t connected to the mainframe (computer) that had taken in, through Monday, 72,636 (new) claims statewide, and that’s for March only,” said DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman. “Some of those claims, we’ve now processed into the mainframe. But some of these are going to take a while to get through because they’re missing information, like they’ve put the wrong routing number from their financial institution or they don’t put a birth date or they put a birth date in wrong, stuff like that. So we actually have to call these people back.”

To complicate matters, the local unemployment offices remain closed to walk-in and in-person services because of concern about COVID-19 spread.

The state will backdate claims and deposit unemployment benefits for eligible individuals who were unable to file their claims due to the overload on the online filing system.

Individuals filing claims will need a checking or savings account for direct deposit of funds, financial institution routing number, and an account number. To be best prepared, please have the contact information and dates of employment for all of your employers over the past 18 months.

The new online claim form can be found at

On a national level, a record 6.65 million Americans filed first-time jobless claims last week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

“Long term, nobody’s going to have any disposable income. The customer base has disappeared. It’s going to be bare necessities only,” Okinaka said. “Unfortunately, from everything I’ve seen, it looks like pandemics usually take about 18 months to cycle. We usually hit the first major peak (in cases) in about three to four months. And then you get some temporary lulls and re-spreads, and that usually takes about three cycles.

“We’re probably looking about 18 months, so for us at the university, we could be online (only) for the next year.”

Okinaka said he’s also concerned about the secondary effects unemployment, the statewide stay-at-home order, and business and park closures are going to have on people.

“This is raising people’s anxiety levels … and I’m talking mental health here,” Okinaka said. “We’re dealing with the immediate consequences of the physical threat, but are we dealing with the threat to mental health and people’s relationships? Those could have really long-lasting consequences. People will drive each other crazy.


“I’ve been telling my students, the ones I’m in email contact with, to get out and get a walk every day. Maintain social distances but get a little bit of exercise. This is a way of keeping your balance, maintaining your mental health.”

Email John Burnett at

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