Molokai unemployment office to be unstaffed

No one will replace Chocho Kaupu when she retires from the Molokai unemployment office today.

As the sole worker in the office, Kaupu’s departure means the loss of face-to-face services for Molokai residents filing claims.

But while the state said full unemployment services still will be available online and over the phone, others said an in-person employee is crucial on the island with the state’s highest unemployment rates.

“I think it’s sad for Molokai because in so many instances, we do have to do things remotely already,” said Jennifer Hawkins, small business specialist at the county’s Kuha’o Business Center. “That’s a sensitive area for our community because we have had businesses come and go over the years, and it’s always better when you can have someone in person.”

Attempts to obtain an interview with Kaupu, who’s been at her post for more than 30 years, were unsuccessful.

Linda Chu Takayama, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, said residents can use computers at the library and the Workforce Development office, which shares office space with the Unemployment Division.

“We’re not closing the office,” Takayama said. “We’re just not at this point immediately filling this position.  . . . We don’t have the funding stream solidified.”

Hawaii currently has some of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S., Takayama said. As of

December, unemployment was at 2.9 percent, fourth lowest in the country, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, it means Hawaii has received about $700,000 less in federal funds for the current fiscal year.

Combined with increased spending, the department will be short about $2.8 million in the current fiscal year, which means 10 positions will have to be cut, Takayama said.

On Molokai the unemployment rate is much higher — 5.4 percent in December and touching double digits during the year, according to the DLIR.

But while Molokai has the highest unemployment rate, the number of annual claims “is rather small,” Takayama said. Last year, 9,077 people in Maui County qualified for benefits: 8,284 on Maui, 568 on Molokai and 225 from Lanai, which does not have its own unemployment office.

Many of these people either got jobs, moved away or exhausted their benefits,  leaving about 50 active claims a year on Molokai.

“In terms of the workload, maybe it doesn’t signify having a full-time staffer there,” Takayama said.

She said that number of claims “should not be a problem” for the Maui office to handle.

However, state Rep. Lynn DeCoite said that number doesn’t take into account the many seasonal workers on Molokai.

“If you are now going to have Molokai call the Maui office with questions and for support, and Lanai calls the Maui office, (then) you are also taking staff resources and time away from the Maui claimants as well,” said DeCoite, whose district covers Molokai, Lanai and East Maui.

Hawkins said it’s true that Molokai may have a smaller workforce “per capita.”

“But if you look at the amount of assistance that is needed per family and what it takes to live here, it’s a little different,” she said. “Even if it wasn’t full time, it would be really nice to at least have that position here.”

If Kaupu hadn’t retired, Takayama said the department wasn’t planning on eliminating her position. But because of uncertainty over funding, the department decided not to seek a replacement. She added that nowadays, 95 percent of claims are handled online. Residents don’t have to wait in line and can check the status of their claims and file reports online, she said.

“It’s faster, easier and more efficient for all the parties involved,” Takayama said. “There are a lot of people out there who are able to get whatever benefits and services they need without physically having to come to the office.”

Although a poster taped to the door and shared on Facebook said “Notice Of Molokai Unemployment Insurance Office Closure” after today, Takayama insisted the office was not closing.

“Maybe it was not the best choice of words,” she said. “I don’t want people to get the idea they won’t have access. It’s just a change in the way they access their benefits.”

But for Hawkins, it’s one less expert the Kuha’o Business Center can refer people to.

“We’re not just a business center, we’re a resource center,” Hawkins said. “We help people connect with resources that maybe they can’t get here on the island. Now this will just be another resource  . . . where we can’t send them to an actual person. And when you lose your job, that’s such a hard thing to have to deal with online.”

DeCoite said according to the DLIR, $75,000 would be needed to fund a new position. But there are also office costs, such as rent and air conditioning, to consider, since the Unemployment Division shares a space with Workforce Development.

“I have spoken to the governor and the director of DLIR about this,” DeCoite said. “The problem is that the funding is being cut by the federal government. So DLIR needs to request the funding from our congressional delegation. Once that ask is made, then I am willing to work with DLIR on our end.

“While many things can be handled online, there are certain things that need a face-to-face conversation,” DeCoite added. “You are dealing with peoples’ livelihoods.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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