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Lahaina Wildfire Victims’ Unemployment Claims Remain Uncertain

Two months after wildfires tore across the Hawaiian island, it remains unclear whether survivors will receive unemployment payments if they’re too traumatized to work. The August wildfires killed 98 people and destroyed 2,200 structures.

Two months after the deadly Maui, Hawaii, wildfires, widespread confusion and uncertainty continue over whether survivors will be denied weekly unemployment payments if they're too traumatized to work.

"All claims for unemployment insurance benefits are examined on a case by case basis to determine eligibility, which includes whether an individual is able and available for work, " Mike Buck, spokesperson for the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in a statement. "All determinations rendered are appealable to an impartial, administrative referee and further to the courts."

Unite Here Local 5—which represents over 900 Maui hotel, food service and health care workers—previously asked DLIR about traumatized employees but has yet to get a response.

"It definitely has come up, " said Cade Watanabe, Local 5's financial secretary-treasurer. "We have not been able to get clear answers from DLIR. Our advice is to encourage our members to file " unemployment claims.

At the same time, Local 5 has asked employers at the Kaanapali Beach Resort and Sheraton Maui Resort &Spa not to challenge members' unemployment claims if they're within the employers' "legal right, " Watanabe said.

Local 5 has 300 members who lived in Lahaina, and about 150 "have lost everything, " he said.

Last week, at a rally at the state Capitol, critics of the timing of Sunday's official reopening of West Maui to tourism said survivors remain traumatized and their lives unsettled.

Paele Kiakona was born and raised in Lahaina and works as a bartender at a restaurant in Kapalua, which would benefit if tourists return in large numbers and stimulate Maui's economy. The restaurant is scheduled to reopen Thursday.

At last week's rally, Kiakona said it would be "morally disgraceful " to expect traumatized fire survivors to service Maui tourists.

The Aug. 8 wildfire killed 98 people and destroyed an estimated 2, 200 structures—most of them homes.

In the first month after the fire, according to the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, "There have been 10, 448 new claims for unemployment in Maui County ... about 9, 900 more than we would expect based on the preceding four weeks. This represents more than 11 % of all employment in Maui County. ... Many restaurants and shops in Lahaina were completely destroyed by the fires, destroying jobs as well."

"In addition, " UHERO wrote, "a large number of displaced families lost both houses and cars, making it extraordinarily difficult to commute to an existing job outside the burn area. While not qualifying them for unemployment, that still represents an additional employment loss.

"Each of these problems is likely to persist, and further layoffs may well occur as recessionary conditions weigh on many businesses. Because a full recovery from the wildfires will take years, the aftermath of the wildfires will impose a substantial employment cost to Maui communities well into the future."

For 2023, idled Hawaii workers are eligible for up to $763 a week in unemployment payments for 26 weeks.

Mufi Hannemann, a member of the Hawaii Tourism Authority board and CEO and president of the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association, said the issue of the mental health of traumatized Maui workers "keeps coming up more and more."

Hannemann said he and others are making "a full-court press on the state " to address unemployment claims for fire survivors who are too traumatized to work.

"We need help, " he said. "It's not the physical well-being ; it's the mental health well-being."

Also last week, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz announced that the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration had funded $17.3 million to the state Department of Health to provide emergency behavioral health support following the Maui wildfires.

The amount was four times what Hawaii received in 2022 for mental health services, Schatz said in a statement.

This year's amount will help provide mental health interventions for families, community organizations and schools ; deliver culturally informed substance use services ; and help build Hawaii's behavioral health workforce.

"The people of Maui have experienced so much loss, trauma, and grief, and addressing the mental health toll is just as important as dealing with the physical damage, " Schatz said in a statement. "This new funding will provide necessary resources to help those who need it in a timely and culturally-informed way."

The American Red Cross has more than 400 paid and volunteer workers in Maui hotels checking in with nearly 8, 000 fire evacuees and helping them resolve any issues.

The Red Cross most recently conducted a survey about any medical and mental health needs, and 14 % said they have issues they want to discuss, said Denise Everhart, the Red Cross' disaster executive for the Pacific Division, which includes Hawaii.

Fifteen Red Cross workers on Maui specialize in disaster mental health, part of a network of mental health specialists on Maui.

For fire survivors worried about having to choose between work or taking care of their mental health, Everhart said, "Those are things that we're going to try to help them work through. We don't have all the answers. But we're really good about making phone calls.

"Somebody who says, 'I'm traumatized, and I can't go back to work' can check in with our mental health specialists and connect them with solutions, " Everhart said.

(c)2023 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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