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Welfare Office on Molokai May Close

Department of Human Services proposing cuts.

The organization tasked with supporting the unemployed may soon be adding to the unemployment, as more than 100 workers throughout the state would be laid off through a Department of Human Services (DHS) reorganization.

Thousands of Molokai residents depend on the (DHS) for basic services such as food stamps and health care. A few weeks ago, DHS announced a proposal to reorganize by reducing its eligibility offices to two centralized locations, in Honolulu and Hilo, to save on time and money – potentially closing the Molokai branch.

The union for DHS employees, Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA), raised concerns when they announced the speculated cuts would leave hundreds without jobs and thousands across the state without close-by service offices. However, DHS says it is still too early to put a number on layoffs or how many branches would close.

“We’re still really just at the talking stage with the union,” said Alan Eyerly, a DHS spokesperson. A legislative briefing was held on Tuesday, Feb. 23 where DHS and HGEA representatives were present to discuss the proposals.

The reorganization would close all DHS eligibility offices in Maui County – cutting staff and services at five locations, including the eligibility unit at 55 Makaena Place in Kaunakakai. Two consolidated locations would stay open in Hilo and Honolulu, where DHS says the greatest number of workers is currently located.

Streamlining
The reorganization would create the Eligibility Processing Operations Division (EPOD), which DHS says would streamline the process of applications while saving money for taxpayers.

“There’s been an increase in applying for assistance, and we need to find a way to process them quicker and in a more efficient way,” Eyerly said.

Eyerly said many clients say reapplying or getting questions answered on the website or over the phone is easier for them. However, many Molokai recipients strongly disagree.

“In the world today, everything is all convenient, but once you lose face-to-face [contact], there’s not going to be any aloha,” said Desiree Cabreros, who uses Med-Quest for a family member who suffered a stroke.

“Just knowing I can get in the [DHS] office and talk to people [gives me] peace of mind,” said Kala`e Tangonan, mother of five and recipient of medical and food stamps benefits.

Tangonan goes to the office once or twice a month to get questions answered or get forms printed out for other benefits and aid programs. If the office closes, she said she doesn’t feel secure putting her personal information into a website. Getting someone on the phone often takes her hours or days.

“The Big island and Honolulu are not going to know what services we have on this island,” added DHS Molokai supervisor Bridget Mowat.

A few petitions are already circulating the island, asking Gov. Lingle to not close Molokai’s office. Julie Makaena went around to different businesses last week asking for signatures, and said its hard enough getting jobs here without more layoffs. Molokai has the highest unemployment in the state, around 16 percent.

“It’s really frustrating for us, and [our] clients as well – they’re in limbo,” Mowat said.

Other Options

If the cuts do go through, there are other social service agencies that provide similar services. Na Pu`uwai Health Clinic and the Maui Family Support Center are other organizations that DHS has suggested to its clients to subsidize their benefits.

However, jumping from one public service to another means less money and assistance for the same amount of people.

“How is it going to save us money? All the people working are paying taxes too, does it really balance out?” Tangonan said.

Members of the public and consumers of DHS will know more about the situation after the legislative meeting on Feb. 23. DHS and HGEA met for a legislative briefing over the proposals.

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