Media Release on July 21, 2021 –
For over a year now, the Hawaiʻi Workers Center campaigned for and with unemployed workers through petitions, press conferences, rallies, op-eds, and more for a safe reopening of the unemployment offices in order to alleviate the frustrations of unemployed workers still waiting on their benefits. We are excited to hear that the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations (DLIR) has responded to our campaign by preparing to resume in-person services on September 7th.
We are grateful to the workers who were always at the forefront of our campaign for their willingness to take time out of their busy schedules to bravely share their stories and to participate in actions, some for the very first time in their lives. We also thank our allies in the community, especially the 19 organizational members of the Coalition to Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers for their continued messages of solidarity and their willingness to walk the talk by turning out their membership. They joined us in a united campaign not only to safely reopen unemployment offices but also for other workers’ rights issues such as raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
Hawaiʻi Workers Center co-executive director Yoko Liriano states further,
Workers are not refusing to return to work because they are lazy or “thriving” on unemployment; they are withholding their labor because satisfactory jobs with sufficient wages are scarce. Workers aren’t being paid enough to cover work-related expenses (childcare, transportation, parking, etc.) and are in need of better wages, benefits and workplace conditions. Hiking the minimum wage would have addressed part of this issue but the Legislature failed to act to do this.
While we remain appreciative of the hard-working DLIR staff for their efforts to resume in-person services by September 7, we continue to hear from many unemployed workers who are STILL waiting for a year or more for their unemployment benefits and face financial difficulty buying groceries and medicine, paying rent, and supporting their families.
The Hawaiʻi Workers Center extends its long standing offer to work with the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations in order to effect a speedy, efficient and safe reopening, the timely processing of the large backlog of claims, and ensuring a responsive Call Center, email, phone and appointment system. We believe that the State of Hawaiʻi can create an unemployment insurance system that can work for all of us.
Ms. Liriano adds, “With the DLIR’s decision to reopen its offices, we have shown that the voice and power of the people and determined and sustained action can bring about change! We will continue to build momentum and worker power, and seek further improvements with and for working people.”
Chronology of the Hawaiʻi Workers Center (HWC) Campaign to Open Up Unemployment Offices for Safe, Direct, In-Person Services
May 1, International Workers Day — Hawaiʻi Workers Center launched (virtually)!
Mid-June — HWC started to help with food distribution, and began to talk to people about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. We found that in terms of the unemployment insurance system, not being able to apply/difficulties applying (lack of wifi, tech, language, hard to navigate the online program), not being able to get calls answered, and information on their claim was the number #1 issue for almost everyone. We gave out fliers with food distribution and got flooded with calls. HWC held webinars to answer questions about applying, and helped some people to apply for unemployment. We knew we had to do more.
July 31—Hawaiʻi Workers Center had a conference call with Department of Labor & Industrial Relations (DLIR) Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio and her staff. We were very clear that we wanted to help. We also said we were not here to sue them, and that we know the workers in the Unemployment Insurance (UI) office are likely working hard and doing their best. We were not criticizing them. We started by sharing the story of one unemployed worker we met at a food distribution site who had so many problems trying to apply for unemployment insurance that he gave up, and was living in his car. We said we must keep those in urgent need in mind. HWC asked what the system needed to be able to do better. We also said we knew they were dealing with an outdated computer system and asked if they had funding to replace the system, if they had identified a contractor, and if they had a timeline for replacing the system. We got some confusing answers regarding whether or not funds were available to replace the computer system. Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio said they had a contractor, had funds/did not have funds/funds were promised. She also said that they were fine but they were hiring more adjudicators. Regarding the issues around language assistance and answering calls to resolve issues, she said they were adding staff. She could not say how many or when and did not give many specifics.
Aug. 3 – A follow-up letter was sent by Director Perreira-Eustaquio that summarized the meeting. DLIR staff was commended for their efforts while we were told that call center staff was “stable” and the calls themselves were being handled by 150 call center staff. The priority was hiring claims examiners. We were also told that DLIR had sufficient funding to modernize computer systems and had kiosks in libraries to help service unemployed workers (despite libraries being closed). We were also told that DLIR would look into a proposal to safely reopen UI offices. The letter said that the capacity of the call center would be increased, and a designated line set up for advocates and community providers to get questions answered for their clients/constituencies.
September – A subsequent conference call meeting was arranged with DLIR Director Perreira-Eustaquio by Cory Park and coalition. Hawaiʻi Workers Center’s Sam Domingo was included in that call. The call mainly focused on getting language assistance for UI applicants and the DLIR director said there was no plan to open up offices for direct in-person services.
Oct. 7 – Hawaiʻi Workers Center held a press conference via zoom that included the stories of unemployed workers and put forward HWC’s 3-point position on what was needed to improve the unemployment system.
Oct. 11 – HWC’s John Witeck, Sam Domingo, and Yoko Liriano had an op-ed published in the Star Advertiser: ”For Too Many UI Office is a Dead End” which stated HWC’s position on improving the unemployment insurance system.
Oct. 21 – DLIR Director was invited to meet with HWC & unemployed workers on Nov. 5 at 11 a.m.
Nov. 2 – Director declines to meet, citing the need to direct all available time to resolve and adjudicate claims. Told 50 new employees hired and 100 more adjudicators were contracted and had just finished their first week of resolving claims. It was stated that federal requirements are complicated and processing takes time. It was further stated, “will provide in-person services when it is determined that we can do so in a safe manner and more effectively. Please know that the DLIR will provide language access services to all those who need it.”
Nov. 5 – Press conference and prayer service was held outside the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations office on Punchbowl Street; petition campaign launched.
Nov. 18 – DLIR Director was invited to meet with us outside of the DLIR office on Dec. 3rd via letter. Comments and suggestions were made in the letter based on her KITV interview on Nov. 13. The Director in the KITV interview said she and her staff were worried about “crowds.” HWC offered to share suggestions and help DLIR restore direct services before the holidays. The invitation letter further pointed out that over the past 5 months little progress has been made on modernizing the computer system, and that no evaluation has been done on whether or not the unemployment offices could be safely opened to provide direct, in-person and essential services.
Dec. 3 – HWC held a sign-holding at the DLIR office to present the Scrooge Award, but was barred from the DLIR office. Director Perreira-Eustaquio did not appear. HWC marched to the Capitol for a short rally and to deliver petitions to Governor David Ige. A letter was also sent to the Governor.
Dec. 4 – An article was published in the Star Advertiser about the Dec. 3rd action: ”Workers Rally For In-person Unemployment Assistance.” Sam Domingo, Robyn Conboy, and Tai Jung were quoted. The article noted that the DLIR Director had said that 97% of claims filed since March 2020 had been paid.
Dec. 12 – DLIR Director invited to meet with HWC and unemployed workers on Dec. 18th. The Hawaiʻi Workers Center’s letter with the invitation stated that the efforts of the department’s staff were appreciated in these difficult times, but said that HWC did not believe they would be endangered if safe practices (safe distancing, wearing masks, etc) were instituted.
Dec. 18 – HWC organized sign-holding and holiday caroling at the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations office. Once again the DLIR Director did not show up.
January – Kokua Fund launched thanks to grant from Families and Workers Fund. Criteria and application form set; interviews done at food distribution sites and at community locations in Kalihi, Waipahu, Wahiawa,and Makaha, and at other Oahu sites and on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island over the next 7 months, arranged by community supporters and HWC volunteers. Over 200 workers and their families received assistance up to $500 and were given the chance to enroll in workers associations sponsored by HWC.
Feb. 3 – Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers Coalition was formed around several key issues including:
* Defending and advancing workers’ rights;
* Fixing the broken Unemployment Insurance (UI) system;
* Safely opening up DLIR offices to provide direct, in-person services and timely benefits;
* The safe return and fair recall of workers to their former jobs;
* Raising the minimum wage;
* Exempting unemployed workers’ benefits from state taxation;
* Banning forced overtime for health care workers;
* Increasing state funding for public education; and
* Reducing inequality and poverty.
We started to work together on planning a march and rally for Feb. 24, 2021.
Feb. 8 – An editorial was printed in Star Advertiser, ”Better Service For the Unemployed”:“…Still, it’s unconscionable that DLIR has gone for so long without some kind of Plexiglas workaround to help people who are desperate and having difficulty navigating the remote-based, complex claims process. Unemployed residents need some sense of control over their fate, including reasonable access to information that pinpoints benefits status and how to effectively address snags.” It was noted that Hawaiʻi had one of the highest unemployment rates and was tied with Nevada at 9.3%, while the U.S. rate was at 6.7%.
Feb. 13 – A letter was sent to the DLIR Director, requesting to meet outside the DLIR office on Feb. 24.
Feb. 18 – The Coalition to Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers held a press conference at St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church to announce its official formation, and an upcoming march and rally on Feb 24.
Feb. 22 – Department of Labor & Industrial Relations Director Anne Perreira-Eustaquio sent a letter declining an invitation to meet, while disagreeing with how HWC characterized DLIR’s efforts. The Director expressed pride in her staff who toiled long hours, working often 7 days a week and on holidays. She also expressed gratitude to those assisting the department, including unions, DLIR retirees, Hawaiʻi State Bar Association, etc. She further explained that the on-line benefits portal degraded to the point of eliminating access to most applicants in mid-March. The department began to use a web application to take traffic off the mainframe via overnight batch processing. The Director said internal phone centers had been installed at Entrepreneurs Sandbox and Hawaiʻi Convention Center(a locally staffed call center was brought into the Hawaiʻi Convention Center), and a vendor was contracted to do claims adjudication. Director Perreira-Eustaquio stated her desire to provide services to the greatest number of individuals in an efficient, timely, and safe manner.
Feb. 23 – The Coalition to Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers, represented by Mary Ochs, Jun Shin, and Sergio Alcubilla had an op-ed published in the Star Advertiser, ”Respect and Defend Hawaii’s Workers From UI to Living Wage”,announcing a march and rally on Feb. 24th that started at the DLIR 10:15 am and ended at the State Capitol; it also covered 5 of the key issues that the Coalition was urging action on.
Feb 24 – The Coalition to Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers held a rally at the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations office on Punchbowl Street then marched to the Capitol for a rally that was 200 strong. We received front page headlines in Star Advertiser, and also received radio as well as TV news coverage. Several legislators attended the rally to publicly share support for reopening the department for in-person services and other coalition issues.
March 11 – The Coalition to Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers held a small sign-holding in front of the Hawaiʻi Convention Center, where the unemployment insurance call center is located. The Star Advertiser covered this action,”Unemployment Aid Coalition Targets Hawaii Convention Center”.
March 31 – In the morning a HWC delegation held signs and passed out handouts talking about the failure of the State to take action for unemployed workers, low-wage workers, hotel workers, nurses, etc both on and near the ramp leading into the State Capitol’s parking garage. At noon the Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers coalition held its second rally at the Capitol to report on the status of the legislative measures that the Coalition was supporting, while grading the legislators on whether or not they stood up for workers. The coalition members present gave the legislative leadership an F-minus on their report card in all areas. There was also sign-waving and more handouts were passed out to passerbys.
April 9 – HWC delegation greeted legislators and staffers as they drove into the State Capitol’s parking garage in the morning. This was to ask them to take action on bills to raise the minimum wage and to exempt UI benefits from state income tax before the legislative session ended.
May 1, May Day– Along with UNITE HERE Local 5, the Hawaiʻi Workers Center organizes a May Day march and rally in Kalihi, bringing back the commemoration of International Workers Day.
July 2 – Representatives of the Hawaiʻi Workers Center sent a letter to Director Perreira-Eustaquio, requesting a meeting by July 8th to get updates on the following questions dealing with short and long term issues with the unemployment system:
- How is DLIR moving forward on replacing the antiquated mainframe?
- Is the operation of the department’s Call Center in the process of being improved?
- We welcomed the inauguration of an appointment system, but we have heard that a good number of claimants have found it hard to access that system. How will you address this?
- What is the plan and the timetable for reopening unemployment offices in order to allow for in-person assistance?
- Finally, we would like to know your timetable for processing the large backlog of claims?
We know of claimants who filed 9 months to even a year that are still waiting for resolution of their claims and needed assistance.
There was no reply from the Director.
July 12 – The Coalition to Defend & Respect Hawaiʻi Workers, including the Hawaiʻi Workers Center branches on Oʻahu and Kauaʻi held signs and rallied in front of our unemployment offices, demanding a safe reopening that works for all of us, staff and claimants alike. We wanted to let the DLIR know that we were not going away and that we were keeping the issue alive. We received coverage on the front page of The Garden Island, as well as TV news (including going live in Oʻahu during the rally) and radio coverage.
July 21—DLIR announced it will reopen unemployment offices for in-person services on September 7, 2021. HWC reps did a 1:15 zoom interview with KITV 4, parts of which were shown several times on the news. HWC released a statement to all media outlets that afternoon and evening.
July 22—KHON TV-2 covered the office reopening and showed video from the rally called by the HWC and the Coalition.