This sign greeted people at the unemployment office on Friday.

Walter Moses and his uncle toured the State Office Building on Friday, March 20, looking for ways to file for unemployment. Moses, who spoke quietly while his uncle translated, had been fired from his job at Mama’s Fish House two days before, and with rent due to come, the couple were visibly worried.

“We tried to keep going, but we couldn’t,” Moses said of the online system. Site security code would not work. Phone calls for assistance would not go through. So the two showed up in person at the Maui Unemployment Insurance Division office, where a sign said “WE ARE CLOSED” in bold and directed them to the online application and overwhelmed phone lines. The two ended up circling the building, desperately seeking help.

They weren’t the only ones this Friday. As I gazed at the office at noon, a constant stream of people approached the window, read the sign and walked away, made a call or snooped around the building in the hope that some help, one way or another, was waiting around the corner.

But no such help would be found.

“The government has to step in and do what it needs to do,” said Lonnie Biddox, a hotel maintenance worker on the west side of Maui. He was fired on March 19 and began his online application that evening. “I waited three hours and still couldn’t continue,” he told me.

The system told him he was inundated with claims, so he figured he could come in and file in person. “I have a lot of bills – I rent, I have two car payments,” he said. “I guess I’ll just log in and keep waiting.”

Some were stuck on simple questions for the app, but couldn’t get the answers they needed.

Jangle Buemil and Leonila Enrique had been unemployed since the Son’z Steakhouse closed on Wednesday, but were unable to answer a question on the app that asked when the restaurant would reopen. “We don’t know, not even our boss,” Buemil said. Both were concerned about car payments, rent, phone payments, “and everything.”

Marion Taufe, who works at the front desk at the Sheraton Maui, filed her complaint after being warned by the hotel when working hours were reduced during the downturn. The request was rejected, but she did not understand the reason.

“I’ve been trying to ask for three days,” she said. “But no one answers. It’s just a little question like that.

“We get the message – stay home – and I don’t want to be here,” Taufe added. “But you get to the point where if you wait, you’re not going anywhere. So I needed to come and ask, “What does this mean and what should I do?” “

She dialed the number and waited again.

“Yes, we understand it’s closed for security reasons,” she told me while on hold, after asking what she would like the government to do about her situation. . “But please call more people on the phone… We’re worried about three days of trial. We need answers.

Benjamin Cantero, who held two jobs as a busboy and prep cook, said a restaurant he worked at was closed on Wednesday and another on Thursday. “They told me I could file for unemployment but I called all day yesterday and no one answered until 3pm,” he said. When he finally contacted support, they told him he had to reset his username and password from what it was when he was declared unemployed years ago. But then the system would not allow him to confirm this new information. He called all Friday morning before showing up in person.

“Everyone has to pay rent,” he said. “It’s crazy. I guess that’s what it is,” he added before walking away.

On Monday, Governor David Ige established a new call center for job seekers and acknowledged that the system was overwhelmed by phone and web traffic. Among some of his new actions, Ige said he would assign workers from other departments to help with unemployment claims, pay allowances to those who file late, provide paper claims and work with employers and labor organizations. to facilitate the filing of applications. On Sunday, the county announced that the Mauiamericanjobcenter.com website will help process the claims.

Yet, on Monday, little seemed to change at the State Office Building except for the presence of a security guard to remove applicants who went to the closed building. There were about 50 people waiting that morning at 7:30 a.m., Assistant Security Officer Andrew Bayron said. When I spoke to him at 2 p.m., he told me that he had turned away at least 200 people and that some candidates had told him that they had been waiting three to six days to go through the unemployment system.

“We’ve seen this kind of thing happen,” said Maui United Way president Nicholas Winfrey. “We didn’t have the infrastructure in place for something like that, but we kind of decided to take matters into our own hands. The organization recently set aside $ 75,000 which it will distribute in grants of $ 5,000 to local nonprofits that can help those in need during the COVID-19 crisis.

“Our expertise is essentially in raising resources and putting them into the hands of the nonprofits that have the most impact in the community,” said Winfrey. These nonprofits will include those that serve “great needs” which might include child care, food security, medical assistance and other billing aids. “Obviously the federal and state governments are working on a number of these things right now,” he added, “but because we’re boots on the ground, so to speak, we’ve got the feel like we could react more quickly. “

Organizations can apply for funding on Mauiunitedway.com, and Winfrey hopes the funds will be distributed in “no more than two weeks.”

“We get calls every day, every hour,” Winfrey said. “People are already in need. People are looking for help, people are looking for rental assistance, any kind of help.

On Tuesday, it looked like this urgent need wasn’t going to go away any time soon.

Tuesday afternoon, “I pretty much pressed redial for an hour and a half,” said Daniel Berrios, a former chef. He was unemployed and had two job prospects before the COVID-19 outbreak. Now, with his benefits expiring and no job offers, he calls every day asking for an extension or other advice.

“Everyone’s panicking,” he said. “There are going to be so many more people out of work, this is going to be crazy.”

Unemployment file at Huiclaims.hawaii.gov or Mauiamericanjobcenter.com. Support for unemployment claims can be contacted at 808-984-8400.

If you are having difficulty filing an unemployment claim or having difficulty due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to hear from you: [email protected] or [email protected]

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