Testimony to Senate Against DLIR Directory Confirmation

To: Senate Committee on Labor, Culture and the Arts
Senator Brian Taniguchi, Chair

Re: Opposing the Confirmation of Anne Perreira-Eustaqui as DLIR Director
The Hawaii Workers Center is a resource and organizing center which addresses
the issues and concerns of low-wage workers and immigrants. For the past 6
months, we have been publicly advocating for unemployed workers, urging the
DLIR to reopen its unemployment offices and provide safe, direct, in-person
services for the thousands of workers who have been furloughed or permanently
laid off since March 2020. Given the poor condition of DLIR’s archaic mainframe
computer, the difficulty of submitting a claim, and the department’s failure to be
helpful to claimants or responsive to their emails and phone calls, direct servicing
is urgent and essential.

We have met twice with DLIR Director Perreira-Eustaquio, conducted news
media conferences, launched a petition to the Governor, and held several
peaceful demonstrations to urge that the DLIR Director and state officials to
reopen DLIR offices so that unemployed workers can be served directly, get
assistance as needed, and receive answers to their questions. The Director first
said they were working to update the computer system and they would try to
provide for safe, direct services. She expressed concern about exposing
workers to Covid-19 infection. In a more recent article, the Director said she
was not worried about exposing workers to the pandemic but her concern was
that the DLIR would be overwhelmed by the number of unemployed persons
submitting claims or seeking answers or assistance.

We believe the DLIR Director has not been honest with us or with claimants as
she has steadfastly refused to allow for direct services and assistance.
For this reason, we believe she should NOT be confirmed as DLIR Director since
she and DLIR have so grievously failed in their responsibilities to unemployed
workers and have caused a great amount of unnecessary suffering and anxiety.

For Jimmy, the few short months after the pandemic hit, he went from
having a job, a place to live, and a modest savings account to no job, no home,
and no savings. He currently lives in his car finding a safe place each night to
sleep, using park facilities for personal care, and standing in line at church-
sponsored food distribution sites.

Jimmy, now 67 years old, came from the Philippines in 2001 to live with his
mother who was his sponsor. He has worked in a variety of jobs, all lower wage
part-time jobs with no benefits, but got enough steady work in order to survive.
He retired in 2016 and is now collecting Social Security at just over $200 per month. He is on Medicare but is challenged to come up with co-pays for medical
services or necessary prescriptions.

Jimmy and thousands of other laid-off or furloughed workers have found that
navigating the cumbersome, confusing process of claiming state unemployment
insurance (UI) payments and federal pandemic unemployment benefits from the
state has been a nightmare. As one who is not proficient in English or in use of a
computer and had problems understanding a myriad of instructions, and the
disappointing lack of timely communication, Jimmy is in limbo. Timely
communications and updates from the Department of Labor and Industrial
Relations (DLIR) have been lacking. Four months and counting, houseless and
living in his car, Jimmy is still waiting to hear from the DLIR whether he is eligible
for unemployment benefits. Yet, through all these months and mounting
hardships, Jimmy has kept his patience and faith, hoping that somehow he will
get through this. He is not alone.

Carlina, a grocery worker, is still waiting for benefits. Her daughter helped her
apply for benefits on a computer. She got a form to update her employment
history and went to the unemployment office to submit it, but it was closed.
Whenever she called, she just got a recording. For weeks all she’s heard is that
“it’s pending, pending.”

Chai had several part-time jobs, as a college lecturer and a guide for two
environmental non-profits. Last June and July he filed 8 UI claims, and the first
one was denied. All the current ones say “pending” when he checks the on-line
site. When he called the UI office, no one answered and he’d get an automated
message. His emails went unanswered. He feels the UI office needs more
staffing and suggested they hire the laid-off workers who have no jobs.
Stuart worked for a medical insurance company. When he was separated from
his job, he filed for UI on-line and was familiar with the process. In the past, he’d
receive benefits fairly quickly. But this time he was denied and was asked to file
an appeals claim explaining why he thought he deserved benefits. He did so and
waited for 3-1/2 months before someone called him from the UI office and asked
him why he was entitled to benefits. “It was disconcerting because I had already
stated that on my appeal application.” The person on the phone said the office
would get back to him after talking to his employer, but over a month has gone by
with no call back and no benefits. He’s had to move in with his mother and sell
his condo to get by. According to Stuart, the UI office has to respond better to
claimants and undo the bottleneck in the appeals process.
Nolia and her daughter Misty both became jobless and applied for UI benefits.
Nolia was an Uber driver who quit working in late March 2020 due to her health
conditions which made her more susceptible to Covid. She and Misty, who
worked at a food stand in a mall, applied for regular UI and were denied and
directed to file for “pandemic assistance.” They both received benefits for a while before being cut off due to a qualification problem. They were directed to apply
again for regular UI which took another month to get. Then Nolia’s UI was cut off
when they said she was an employee and not an independent contractor, and
since then she’s waited nearly two months to get seven unpaid weeks. She
says, “It’s difficult, stressful not to have enough to pay your bills, buy food and
gas.” She and Misty found it impossible to reach anyone at UI by phone even
calling many times a day. Nolia feels the state needs “a better system to deal
with unexpected crises” and the federal government needs to be more helpful.
These stories told by unemployed workers are heart-breaking, yet they are not
unique — thousands of other workers have experienced similar difficulties, delays
and a frustrating lack of communication from the state unemployment office with
its antiquated computer system and jammed, unworkable phone lines. These
true stories of suffering and frustration have motivated the Hawaii Workers
Center and our allies to urge the DLIR to do the following:

1) Reopen direct in-person filing of claims at DLIR offices and at community
sites, with language and computer assistance available; credit unions and banks
have shown this can be safely done.

2) Be more transparent and improve communications with applicants and their
representatives. Increase DLIR’s capacity to handle applicants’ phone calls and
emails and provide timely responses to applicants’ questions about their claims.
3) Expedite the long overdue modernization of the DLIR’s antiquated mainframe
computer system that receives and assigns claims.

In these ways, by greater accessibility, better communications, adequate staffing,
quicker claim processing, and more transparency, the DLIR can alleviate much
stress and suffering by effectively responding to the critical needs of thousands
of unemployed workers.

(Note: the Hawaii Workers Center is a non-profit resource and organizing center
launched last May which addresses the issues and concerns of low-wage
workers and immigrants. Check out HWC’s website @ hawaiiworkerscenter.org.)

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