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Unemployment Office Closing

Molokai’s Unemployment Insurance office is slated for closure at the end of this month because of federal budget cuts. The office has been open since the 1970s and has helped residents through the closure of many island industries. Now, officials say the community can still access services online and by calling the Maui office.

“All of the usual services and benefits of the Unemployment Insurance office will still be available to the residents of Molokai,” said Linda Chu Takayama, Director of the Dept. of Labor and Industrial Relations.  “Face to face is always preferable but it has to be balanced with the economic situation.”

The office, located in the state building in Kaunakakai, will be closed after Jan. 31. A sign on the door directs those filing unemployment claims to use the public computers at the Molokai Public Library for online applications or to call the Maui office for assistance.

Many community members aren’t happy with those options, and Molokai’s Rep. Lynn DeCoite said she is fighting to figure out another solution.

“You’re dealing with confidential information and emotional distress with the loss of a job, and they need direct contact,” DeCoite said of Molokai’s unemployment applicants. “They don’t want to be talking to computers… they deserve a right to have a live body there.”

DeCoite said she is working with the legislature to try to secure state funding for a new position that could cover unemployment services along with tasks in other divisions. Chu Takayama said a lot would need to be done for that to happen and she’s “not sure what the outcome will be.”

“In the meantime, we’re determined to provide services as needed to the people of Molokai,” she said. “We offer them our assistance whether its by online, by telephone, and depending on circumstances, have someone come over…. We’re still providing the same aloha even though it may be long distance.”

By the Numbers

Molokai isn’t the only island feeling the effects of a tightened budget. Chu Takayama said across the state, about 10 positions within the division are also being cut. Currently 95 percent of claims in Hawaii are processed online. Even on Oahu, those filing claims rarely have face to face time with someone in an office, she added.

“There is uncertainty about how the Unemployment program will be operating under new [federal]  administration…,” she explained. “In that respect we’re being extra cautious right now because we don’t want to find ourselves in a deficit.”

There are currently 57 active unemployment claims on Molokai, and Chu Takayama said they “want to make sure [those claimants] continue to be serviced and any new claims that come up.”

Yet while the rest of the state shifts to online claims, Chocho Kaupu of the Molokai office said most people still come in to see her “because it’s easier.”

Molokai is also still topping the charts with the highest unemployment rate in the state.

As of last November, Molokai’s unemployment rate, not seasonally adjusted, was 7.1 percent compared to the state’s average of 2.8 percent, according to data from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Both those rates showed a decrease over November the previous year, at which time the state had a 3.3 percent unemployment rate and Molokai’s was at 8.9. Seasonal adjustment means that regular fluctuations in hiring and layoff patterns due to seasonal patterns are factored in for more meaningful comparison of data.

In 2015 on Molokai, the category of agriculture, forestry and fishing represented the largest percentage of claims at 21.3 percent. Construction and health care followed, each representing the careers of 12 percent of claimants. Industry information was not available for 17 percent of the claims. The duration of claims from one to four weeks represented about 37 percent; about 34 percent filed claims for five to 14 weeks; and 28 percent filed for more than 15 weeks at one time. Fifty-eight percent of claimants selected Hawaiian as their ethnicity, while Filipino came in second at 16 percent.

Looking Back

Kaupu, who has worked at Molokai’s Unemployment Insurance office for 34 years, has seen it all over the years. She said these days, 50 to 60 coming into her office to file claims is a busy week, mostly representing seasonal agriculture workers, while a slow week is about 20.

She said overall, it’s much fewer people than used to come in, when hotels represented the main industry on the island.

“Back then [in the 80s and 90s], we were really busy,” she said. “I’ve seen it all, I’ve been here since Del Monte.”

She recalled when the pineapple company closed, laying off 300 or 400 employees, she was swamped and had to use Del Monte’s office to process all the applications.

“Back then, all we had was this little dinky office,” she said describing the small building that used to stand behind the current library in Kaunakakai.

When the Kaluakoi hotel closed, she once again couldn’t accommodate everyone, so she got creative.

“We went and did applications out of a car [at Kaluakoi] and then processed the paperwork back at the office,” she said.

But to her, it’s all worth it.

“I like helping people, because that’s the only way to do it,” she said simply.

With her approaching retirement, she said she’s still willing to help people with any questions on a volunteer basis.

“We’re very grateful that we had a long run with Chocho at the helm and are very grateful for all her years of service,” said Chu Takayama.

Alberta Patchen with the Workforce Development division works alongside Kaupu in the same office space. She has 31 years on the job, and while Kaupu processes applications for funds when someone is out of work, Patchen connects people with employers and assists with navigating job applications and developing resumes.

She, too, has seen the effects of budget cuts over the last few years, going from three employees a few years ago to being the only one in her office now. Even though she is understaffed, she said she is familiar with the unemployment applications and can assist people.

Chu Takayama said she has been working to schedule a meeting on Molokai to share information on the changes with the community, at the request of DeCoite. The meeting’s date has yet to be scheduled.

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