‘Restaurant cards’ slated for the unemployed: Program will provide $500 that only can be spent at eateries

  • Sherry Menor McNamara

Hawaii residents who are receiving unemployment insurance benefits will receive $500 to be spent at Hawaii restaurants before mid-December.

Sherry Menor McNamara, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii announced Wednesday that the state will disburse $75 million to individuals receiving unemployment in federal funds in the form of pre-loaded dining cards.

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The Restaurant Card Program, McNamara said, will allow the state to support local businesses and local families while infusing cash into the struggling economy.

McNamara explained that 60% of restaurants nationwide will not be able to continue to operate without additional support, according to the National Restaurant Association.

Hawaii residents currently receiving unemployment benefits will receive restaurant cards in the mail in the coming weeks without needing to apply. Between Oct. 20 and Dec. 15, recipients will be able to use those cards at local restaurants only, working like any other debit card, McNamara said.

The funds on the cards are nontransferable, and thus can only be used at restaurants, McNamara said. There do not appear to be restrictions on what can be purchased with the cards.

McNamara said the program could potentially double current spending at local businesses in the state and save at least 1,000 jobs, according to an evaluation by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

“You can certainly see that this program is a win-win situation for the beneficiaries, restaurants and their employees, and the broader supply chain,” McNamara said.

In related unemployment news, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations opened a new $4.9 million virtual call center Wednesday that will employ 200 people to assist people applying for unemployment insurance.

While there are currently only 50 employees at the new call center, Anne Perreira-Eustacio, newly appointed director of the DLIR, said the center will be fully staffed with 200 employees by the end of next week.

However, Perreira-Eustacio said only about 40% of the call center workers will be Hawaii-based. The call center will largely be staffed by mainland contractors who have conducted similar services in 13 other states, Perreira-Eustacio said, and will provide training to other employees in order to speed up the unemployment filing process.

The department also will open an adjudication center for unemployment claimants to discuss disputed claims with 100 claims examiners. That center will open in mid-October, Perreira-Eustacio said.

Unemployment Insurance Call Center numbers are (833) 901-2272 and (833) 901-2275.

A new website also has launched to track the state’s spending of federal COVID-19 funds.

The Hawaii Data Collaborative — a partnership between the State Office of Federal Awards Management, the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism — lists the recipients of the $10 billion in federal COVID funds awarded to the state so far.

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Those data can be found at hawaiidata.org/federalfunds.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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