Federal stimulus act bolsters Hawaii unemployment benefits

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A security guard is set up outside the unemployment office Monday in Hilo. Employees are working in the office, but it is not open to the public.

Thanks to the federal economic stimulus plan passed last week, Hawaii residents can receive pandemic unemployment benefits until September with minimal hassle.

Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said Monday that the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 signed Thursday by President Joe Biden will extend the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance programs for an additional 25 weeks, until Sept. 4 and Sept. 6, respectively.

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The additional $300 per week unemployment supplement to those programs also will continue until Sept. 4, Perreira-Eustaquio said.

The extension comes near the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the pandemic in America, which means many unemployment claimants are nearing the end of their initial claims. However, Perreira-Eustaquio said claimants currently receiving PUA or PEUC benefits will have their claims extended automatically as long as they are still eligible, although some input on the claimants’ end is still necessary.

“If claimants went back to work and received earnings and then qualified again, they move on to a brand-new initial claim,” Perreira-Eustaquio said. “So, we determine if they have enough earnings to move them on. If they do, claimants will receive an email … that will tell them to log on to their account and file a new initial claim.”

The claimant can then choose to either move forward with that new initial claim or stay on the PEUC program until September, Perreira-Eustaquio said.

Perreira-Eustaquio said claimants can expect to receive that email within a week after their initial claim’s term ends.

Perreira-Eustaquio also addressed the persistent technical issues that have plagued the unemployment office since the pandemic began, which have left some claims pending for weeks or even months.

Many cases of long-delayed claim extensions, Perreira-Eustaquio said, are caused by an overpayment issue on the claimant’s initial claim, which, due to a legal technicality prohibiting the co-mingling of state trust funds and federal funds, means the claimant cannot receive PEUC funds until the funds from their initial claim are exhausted.

This issue must be resolved manually on a case-by-case basis, a problem which is compounded by the limitations of the DLIR’s unemployment call center, which Perreira-Eustaquio said is able to respond to about 2,000 of the more than 40,000 calls received each day.

While the call center attempts to get in touch with the people whose calls were dropped, Perreira-Eustaquio said it isn’t easy.

“Our biggest issue, again, is still that claimants are not picking up their phones,” Perreira-Eustaquio said.

“We’re calling, and we’re not getting responses from claimants.”

Perreira-Eustaquio said the DLIR is working with Gov. David Ige to secure funds that would allow the department to hire additional personnel to manage unemployment claims.

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The department also plans to implement an online assistant program on the unemployment website to allow claimants to potentially walk through the application process with a department representative via video conference.

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

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