HANALEI — Vanessa Castro was set to move to California in May. Six months pregnant, she planned to move with her young daughter and boyfriend to be closer to family. The coronavirus pandemic changed that.
A furloughed server at Kalypso Island Bar and Grill in Hanalei, she’s not working, and has been struggling to get through to file for unemployment. She said she is nearly through her $2,500 savings, stimulus check and tax return. She logs into the unemployment website every day with no luck.
“It’s a complete standstill,” she said.
Many of her fellow servers, dishwashers and bartenders are in the same boat, and it’s not just Kalypso employees.
Less than a third of unemployment insurance filings have been received since the first week of March in Hawai‘i, according to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
On the end week ending in March 7, there were 84 initial claims in Kaua‘i. By April 4, there were 4,476 initial claims. At the end of April, there were 5,688 weeks claimed in Kaua‘i and 68,639 across the state.
The state has seen a 1,675.12% increase in unemployment claims since last year, according to WalletHub.
The overloaded unemployment system has created a drastic backlog of employees waiting for checks, and an inundated system that cannot handle the load of people trying to get through. For many, screens show high volume or temporary locked alerts.
Sheri Trentlage owns Garden Island Grille in Koloa, which shut down on March 17. She sent home her employees with the food in the prepped kitchen and some advice.
“We told them to file fast, do it immediately because more people are going to be in the system,” she said.
She has four core employees who are all Filipino, she said. “Some of them have a hard time with English. They’re the ones I’m worried about because they don’t have access to computers at home.”
So Trentlage and her husband get them together every week and help them file.
One of these employees, Napolean Villanova, is disabled and without a car. He has no way to file claims online or a resource to get to food banks. “We stopped by his house to see how he was doing a week ago, and he doesn’t have anything,” Trentlage said.
While Villanova has the help of Trentlage, they still struggle to get into the unemployment system. They recently discovered that Villanova had been on unemployment before and his account is linked to an email address somebody else made for him and he does not have access to it.
“It’s a challenge for me and I understand it,” Trentlage said. “Now for a person that’s at the bottom rung that doesn’t have anything and now doesn’t have any services (phone or cable) because it’s been five weeks he’s losing things.”
Trentlage employs 15 people and checks in with everybody from time to time. One server has lost their home, another is killing wild chickens for food and another is eating bitter weeds in their backyard.
“I understood the first couple of weeks when they say the state was overloaded. But at this point, it’s five weeks, six weeks,” she said. “It’s too long to go without a check.”
What employers see when they log into the unemployment website is a dashboard, Trentlage said. It shows no indication of any processing.
“As an employer, we pay $7,000 give or take a year toward unemployment,” she said. “And for our employees, they look to us as their employer when their paychecks are not there. They look to us for help.”
Flavia Digrazia is the general manager at Kalypso, where Castro worked. She sees the same dashboard as Trentlage and it frustrates her. Digrazia invites her employes to her house or office to try to get onto the unemployment website.
“Sometimes I spend three hours with each password, and I still cannot get in,” she said.
Many of her employees joined the unemployment system back during the 2018 floods, and they have had an easier time getting into the site, but many have yet to get all the unemployment they’ve filed for.
Weekly benefits can be expected in 15 days, the Department of Labor said, but time can be extended if there are mistakes in applications. Unemployed workers can backdate their claims by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, but many have reported not getting through on the website.
Jeric Gonzales, who works at Garden Island Grille, has started receiving unemployment about a month after he was furloughed.
On the days they get together in Koloa, Gonzales lets coworker Rolando Alcaraz Jr. use his phone to file, and it takes hours just to log in, refreshing the screen as often as he can.
“Nobody’s expressing any interest in helping these people,” Trentlage said. “You know, you’re telling me to go to a website that doesn’t work.”
Mike Ching, the general manager at Ching Young Village Shopping Center in Hanalei, also worries about his employees. It took him five days to help an employee of his, Joseph Rita, get onto the website just to create a username and password.
“We got to the password and it crashed,” Ching said. “We spent hours and we’re not successful.”
Ching has taken in Rita, who is a dishwasher, and makes sure he’s getting enough to eat each day and continues to help him file for unemployment.
Castro is trying to look to the bright side with her plans changed. She’s getting more time with her seven-year-old daughter and has talked to friends who are able to do the same now.
“It’s not all bad, everybody’s getting time with the family, which is nice since everybody’s always on the go here,” she said. “We’re all getting the chance to catch up.”
Sabrina Bodon, public safety and government reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or email@example.com.