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Respecting workers, employed and unemployed

Today on O‘ahu, representatives from dozens of community organizations are gathering at the State Capitol in a demonstration of support and solidarity with workers, both the unemployed and those on the front-lines working in stores, restaurants and offices everywhere.

On Kaua‘i, Maui and the Big Island residents are adding their voices this morning as well. Via email, telephone and social media during this same time period, from 10:15 a.m. until 12:30 p.m., residents are contacting Gov. David Ige, (808) 586-0034, david.y.ige@hawaii.gov, Senate President Ronald Kouchi 808-586-6030, senkouchi@capitol.hawaii.gov, and House Speaker Scott Saiki, 808-586-6100, repsaiki@Capitol.hawaii.gov, asking them to:

• Open the unemployment office for in-person service;

• Increase Hawai‘i’s minimum wage;

• Stop taxing unemployment benefits;

• Support the right of employment recall;

• Ban forced overtime.

The bottom-line message is that Hawai‘i’s workers, both the employed and the unemployed, deserve respect.

It’s true, some workers are forced to work overtime or risk getting fired. It does not matter whether they have children waiting for them at home or not.

It’s also true that some businesses, hotels, resorts and others are using the pandemic as an excuse to lay off employees that have dedicated 20 and 30 years of their lives to serving that company, cutting off their health insurance and replacing them with new, lower-wage workers.

The 590,000 people who have filed for unemployment benefits this past year will soon be sent a bill for the state income tax owed on this income, plus penalties and interest for late payment. The state should, of course, waive this tax for 2020 and 2021. It’s the least they can do for their gross mishandling of the situation.

Fortunately, the state Senate has moved forward a modest increase in the minimum wage, proposing an increase to $12 per hour effective July 1, 2022. While far short of the $17 minimum that is needed, it’s a good step in the right direction.

Hawai‘i workers deserve respect.

They deserve to be able to go to the unemployment office and speak to someone in person, just the same as someone obtaining a building permit or paying their taxes. Being forced to make endless telephone calls to numbers that are never answered is unacceptable.

There is no good reason that a physical office staffed by real human beings cannot be opened. Our many friends who through no fault of their own have lost their jobs should be able to meet and discuss with a live human being, face to face, their unemployment application. Every day on every island people are meeting in person to do their banking, accounting, shopping, dine in restaurants and interact with various government agencies.

The unemployed should be granted the same privilege. This, of course, should be done safely, as it is being done in other offices and stores. Prioritize these state employees as essential and make the vaccine available to them if that has not already been done.

If there is a fear that these unemployed individuals who have been waiting weeks, some perhaps months, just to get a return telephone call, will become irate. That is understandable and expected. While an understandable and rational concern, it’s not sufficient reason to continue keeping unemployment offices closed statewide. Add security, stagger hours, start with kupuna, or make it by appointment only. But bring in human beings to answer the darn phones and set the appointments.

Enough is enough. The failure to reopen is either due to a lack of resources, a lack of political will, or a lack of respect for workers. The governor, the Senate president and the House speaker have access to the resources, and if they respect and value workers, they should marshal the political will and just do it.

I encourage all to please join in the effort and strongly-but-courteously demand that the unemployment offices be opened for in-person service and Hawai‘i’s workers, both the unemployed and those with jobs, be treated with respect.

Please take a moment today and personally call and/or email those who are in a position to provide the resources needed. Ask them politely but firmly to take action, demonstrate the political will and show Hawai‘i workers the respect they deserve.

•••

Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.
Source: The Garden Island

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