Walter Moses and his uncle walked laps around the State Office Building on Friday, March 20, looking for ways to file an unemployment claim. Moses, who spoke softly as his uncle translated, was laid off from his job at Mama’s Fish House just two days prior, and with upcoming rent to pay, the pair was visibly concerned.
“We tried to go on it but no can,” Moses said about the online system. The security code for the site wouldn’t work. Phone calls for support wouldn’t go through. So the two showed up at Maui’s Unemployment Insurance Division office in person, where a sign told them “WE ARE CLOSED” in boldface and directed them back to the overwhelmed online application and phone lines. The two ended up circling the building, helplessly looking for assistance.
They weren’t the only ones there that Friday. As I watched the office at noon, a constant stream of people approached the window, read the sign, and either walked away, made a call, or poked around the building in the hope that help, somehow, was waiting around the corner.
But no such help would be found.
“The government needs to step in and do what they gotta do,” said Lonnie Biddox, a maintenance worker at hotels on Maui’s west side. He was laid off on March 19 and started his online application that night. “I waited three hours and I still couldn’t get on,” he told me.
The system told him it was overwhelmed with claims, so he thought he could come in and file in person. “I got a lot of bills – I rent, I have two automobile payments,” he said. “I guess I’ll just get online and just keep waiting.”
Some were stuck on simple questions for the application, but couldn’t get the answers they needed.
Jangle Buemil and Leonila Enrique were out of work since Son’z Steakhouse closed Wednesday, but couldn’t answer a question on the application that asked when the restaurant would reopen. “We don’t know, not even our boss,” said Buemil. The two were concerned about car payments, rent, phone payments, “and everything.”
Marion Taufe, who works the front desk at the Sheraton Maui, filed her claim after being put on-call by the hotel when workers’ hours were cut during the business slowdown. The claim was denied, but she didn’t understand the reason why.
“I’ve been trying for three days to ask,” she said. “But nobody’s answering. It’s just a little question like that.”
“We understand the message – stay home – and I don’t want to be here,” Taufe added. “But you get to the point where if you wait, you’re not gonna get anywhere. So I needed to just come and ask, ‘What does this mean, and what do I need to do?’”
She dialed the number, and waited again.
“Yes we understand it’s closed for safety,” she told me while on hold, after I asked what she would like the government to do about her situation. “But please get more people on the phone… Three days of trying makes us worried. We need answers.”
Benjamin Cantero, who held two jobs as a busboy and prep cook, said one restaurant he worked at closed Wednesday and another closed Thursday. “They told me I can file unemployment but I’ve been calling all day yesterday and nobody answered until 3pm,” he said. When he finally got in touch with support, they told him he had to reset his login and password from what it was during a previous time he filed unemployment, years ago. But then, the system would not allow him to confirm this new information. He called all Friday morning before showing up in person.
“Everybody needs to pay rent,” he said. “It’s crazy. I guess it is what it is,” he added before walking away.
On Monday, Governor David Ige established a new call center for unemployment claimants and acknowledged that the system has been overwhelmed with phone and web traffic. Among some of his new actions, Ige said he would allocate workers from other departments to help with unemployment claims, pay benefits to individuals who file late, provide paper applications, and work with employers and labor organizations to facilitate claim filing. On Sunday, the county announced the website Mauiamericanjobcenter.com will help with claims.
Still, by Monday, little seemed to change at the State Office Building except for the presence of a security guard to shoo away claimants who came to the closed building. There were about 50 people waiting that morning by 7:30am, said deputy security guard Andrew Bayron. When I spoke to him at 2pm, he said he turned away at least 200 people, and that some applicants told him they had been waiting for three to six days to get through the unemployment system.
“We saw this kind of thing coming,” said Maui United Way president Nicholas Winfrey. “We didn’t have the infrastructure built in place for something like this, but we kind of decided to take things into our own hands.” The organization recently set aside $75,000 that it will distribute in $5,000 grants to local nonprofits that can help people in need during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Our expertise is basically collecting resources and getting it back into the nonprofits’ hands that are most impactful in the community,” Winfrey said. Those nonprofits will include ones that provide for “big needs” which could include childcare, food security, medical assistance, and other bill assistance. “Obviously the federal and state government are working on quite a few of these things right now,” he added, “but because we are boots on the ground, so to speak, we feel as if we could react faster.”
Organizations can apply for funding at Mauiunitedway.com, and Winfrey hopes funds will be distributed in “no more than two weeks.”
“We’re getting calls every day, every hour,” Winfrey said. “People are in dire need already. People are looking for assistance, people are looking for rental assistance, any sort of help.”
As of Tuesday, it seemed that this dire need will not subside soon.
On Tuesday afternoon, “I pretty much hit redial for an hour-and-a-half,” said Daniel Berrios, a former kitchen manager. He was on unemployment and had two job prospects before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, with his benefits set to expire and no job opportunities, he’s been calling every day to ask for an extension or other guidance.
“Everybody’s panicking,” he said. “There’s gonna be so many more people on unemployment, it’s gonna be crazy.”
File for unemployment at Huiclaims.hawaii.gov or Mauiamericanjobcenter.com. Support for unemployment claims can be reached at 808-984-8400.
If you are having difficulty filing for unemployment or experiencing challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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