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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 15, 2010

Union seeks details of DHS overhaul

By Mary Vorsino
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Nora Nomura

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The union for state workers who help people apply for government assistance says it will sit down with Department of Human Services officials soon to discuss a proposed reorganization that could lead to big layoffs.

DHS has criticized the Hawai'i Government Employees Association for talking about the plan in a legislative briefing, while at the same time saying it wasn't ready to meet in person to discuss the reorganization. HGEA in turn said that DHS should have attended the briefing to clear up community concerns.

HGEA also said that it's following its own policy on sit-downs, and will consult with DHS on the reorganization after it gets some questions answered.

Nora Nomura, HGEA deputy director, said the union hasn't gotten information from DHS on how many layoffs the reorganization will include.

"We have a lot of questions," she said.

A DHS spokeswoman said it's too early to discuss those details.

The reorganization was the subject of a Jan. 29 letter from DHS Director Lillian Koller to HGEA, in which she laid out a proposal to close DHS eligibility offices statewide and replace them with two processing centers staffed by people who would not meet clients in person, but who would communicate with them by phone, e-mail, fax and mail.

In a subsequent letter to HGEA, Koller said that people applying for benefits or who need to file forms to renew eligibility would still be able to see workers in person at nonprofits, health clinics and other DHS offices.

She did not specify which DHS offices would take in-person queries.

At the legislative hearing, Nomura said the reorganization would trigger hundreds of layoffs and would close about 50 eligibility offices in the Islands. She said the cost cuts would be at the expense of the most vulnerable.

DHS officials say that the plan will improve service and speed up applications at a time when the department is facing an increased workload. Demand for a host of assistance programs, including food stamps and child care subsidies, has risen because of the poor economy.