LIHU‘E — Steven Roy Carvalho submitted a full-page color print out of him holding up his driver’s license to his face. Surely, it’s him, but even that hasn’t been enough to prove his identity to the state.
Carvalho, a gig-working taxi driver, hasn’t worked since the start of the pandemic when tourism plummeted.
He applied May 1 for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a federal coronavirus relief assistance program designed by Congress for those not eligible for regular unemployment insurance claims, including those who are self-employed, independent contractors and freelancers.
Every day, he’d check his PUA dashboard. Then, on May 18, Carvalho received a Notice of Monetary Determination stating he’d receive up to $263 each week for up to 39 weeks. The money he received went toward rent, car payments and food, he said.
When the application went live, the program was targeted by identity thieves. In June, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported that $15.8 million had been lost to fraudulent PUA claims.
Carvalho, who applied for PUA himself, received a letter in July denying his claim, stating his identification could not be verified.
At the end July, he received another letter and dashboard notification, stating he had until August 13 to submit proof of identification. So, he resubmitted his identification, including a copy of his social security card, passport and that selfie with his driver’s license right next to his face. But before that August 13 date, he received second letter denying his claim citing the agency could not confirm his identity.
Now, his dashboard says he owes the government the $9,345 he received from the program.
What’s frustrating for Carvalho is that there’s almost no way to get this worked out.
On Aug. 1, the extra hands and call center the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations set up for unemployment claims disbanded. Now, calls are being routed to local offices.
The local Kaua‘i office has Hawai‘i National Guard members stationed outside, asking that residents call-in.
The state is working on a virtual call center for regular claims as well as PUA, Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, Acting Director of DLIR, said Wednesday to the state’s Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.
The virtual call center will hopefully be up and running in the next few weeks, Perreira-Eustaquio said. The contact is currently being reviewed.
Perreira-Eustaquio acknowledged that people continue to have issues getting through.
“We know it’s difficult to get through those lines,” she said.
In mid-March, initial unemployment claims began to rise, with claims peaking at 53,112 during the first week of April. During the second week of August, initial unemployment claims continued above 5,000 per week.
Perreira-Eustaquio explained that the problems with unemployment claims that started in March have been mitigated, but employees are still working through redundant claims, mistakes and backdating.
At the end of August, Carvalho was given another chance to resubmit his documents to prove his identity. He’s hopeful third time’s the charm.
“I know I’m not the only one,” he said.