State to launch new unemployment call center as claims rise

HONOLULU — The state unemployment office announced that a new call center is slated to be online by the end of the month to help manage the increased caseload during the pandemic.

Some residents have called unsuccessfully every day seeking benefits from the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations and have had their questions go unanswered.

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“We’re getting scared. I mean, how are we going to pay for our bills? We don’t have any money coming in,” former local resort kitchen manager Russell Raymond said.

Newly named state Labor Department Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio said Thursday that the state is contracting with mainland company Maximus to hire 100 people to handle customer service calls for the unemployment office.

“So these individuals coming on board to take these calls, need to understand the system, how it works, how to help these claimants and not just answer a call, but fix something if they can,” Perreira-Eustaquio said, adding that the department is making progress with claims.

There are 53 people dedicated to processing pandemic unemployment benefits and the department is in the process of hiring 17 more, officials said.

“We are making progress on PUA. We’ve been able to tackle fraud. We paid out 2,600 claims this past Monday and another 8,500 weeks of claims will be released this weekend,” she said.

In addition, the FEMA Lost Wages Assistance program, that would award those eligible with an extra weekly $300, is expected to be paid out next month after engineers complete building a new program to launch the benefit and verify eligibility.

The unemployment office has processed 135,000 eligibility self-certifications for the program but says there are still tens of thousands who may be eligible.

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Hawaii’s unemployment rate ties for third-worst in nation

HONOLULU — Hawaii’s unemployment rate dropped significantly since the start of the coronavirus pandemic but was still tied for third-worst in the nation in August.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday the state’s 12.5% seasonally adjusted jobless rate was tied with New York for third-highest in the nation last month. Nevada had the worst rate at 13.2%, while Rhode Island came in second with 12.8%.

The pandemic and measures to control the spread of the virus have forced the shutdown of hundreds of hotels in Hawaii. More than 124,000 people filed for weekly unemployment claims last week.

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Hawaii’s jobless rate improved from 13.5% in July and a peak of 23.8% hit in April.

Hawaii led the nation in how dramatically the jobless rate increased compared to August last year. The state’s unemployment rate jumped 9.8 percentage points over a year ago. Nevada was second with a 9.4 percentage-point gain.

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