Greg Ngiraiwet is of indigenous Polynesian ethnicity. My boyfriend and partner was born in the U.S., but raised in Palau, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand. He came to Hawai’i in his late teen years and was recruited by the U.S. military.
Greg is a veteran who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq between 1998 to 2006. The Army assigned Greg to Fort Shafter, O’ahu for his final years of service. Due to the intensity of combat he observed or in which he participated, Greg experienced PTSD-symptoms periodically and has received treatment.
The disease never interfered with post-military employment, where he served as an accomplished chef for more than a decade at various restaurants, such as Ola’s at Turtle Bay Resort, which is now Roy’s.
Greg was laid off from work in April 2020 due to the pandemic’s impact on his employer and lack of self-employment opportunities. He filed a claim for unemployment, yet received no response for months. Greg and I sent many emails to DLIR Director Scott Murakami, as well as his successor, Anne Perreira-Eustaquio.
During the many months Greg waited, the DLIR website listed his claim as “pending.” We were unable get through to either the DLIR office or Call Center. In September 2020, we finally received an email from the director’s office. Ms. Perreira-Eustaquio informed Greg of a scheduled phone appointment with an examiner to review his claim. No one called.
At wits’ end and anxious about losing the means to support himself, his son’s college expenses, and other family who relied on him, Greg joined a class action lawsuit seeking the Hawai’i Supreme Court to order DLIR to improve handling of claims.
The Court dismissed the action claiming there were other ways to accomplish the objectives of the lawsuit. Due to an unresponsive legislature, other ways failed. Thousands of unemployed families like Greg are being dismissed and denied their earned benefits.
Soon after the class action was filed, DLIR denied his claim for assistance ruling he was unavailable and unable to work due to his service-related PTSD disability. This is disingenuous. Greg has worked as a chef for over a decade in various food establishments in Hawai’i and California without incident.
Greg has an outstanding work history with all his employers. PTSD was never an issue until he suffered the stress DLIR forced upon him withholding unemployment compensation and abandoning him with no income to support himself or family.
“We don’t care that he is a veteran.”ESARO
After DLIR disqualified Greg’s claim, neither he nor I were able to speak with anyone from DLIR. We filed an appeal with the Employment Security Appeals Referees’ Office (ESARO).
After explaining the major issues about his claim to the ESARO representative, I mentioned Greg was a veteran and should be treated better. She responded, “We don’t care that he is a veteran.”
The hearings officer also treated Greg disrespectfully. He refused to let either his doctor or me testify, and relied primarily on documents ESARO had received. We believe ESARO misinterpreted the information and failed to seek clarification.
As a result, we feel his appeal was evaluated unjustly. Greg’s doctor submitted undisputed medical evidence documenting Greg was continuously available and fit to work.
Contrary to the medical evidence, the appeals administrator concluded Greg was unable to work due to his PTSD. We believe ESARO made the determination based on an erroneous and subjective interpretation of one email.
The ruling failed to consider Greg’s substantial work history since the conclusion of his military career. Nevertheless, ESARO decided Greg was not available to work due to his disability and, therefore, disqualified from receiving his earned UI benefits.
As a result, Greg has been denied payments of $370 a week for a total of $27,000 in assistance. Greg and his family critically need this income, since Greg receives no veterans disability benefits.
The U.S. government considers Greg fit and available for employment, as he has worked for a living since his honorable discharge from the military in 2006. The State of Hawai’i rules against the federal government and Greg’s medical team.
This hardship could have been avoided had someone from DLIR spoken with Greg directly and resolved concerns in the first weeks after he filed his claim. Greg’s PTSD was aggravated only by the refusal of DLIR to respond, the agency’s long delay addressing his claim, and the unjust denial of benefits.
As Greg has been unable to find an attorney to represent him, I wrote and submitted an appeal to the Circuit Court. We currently await a decision. It’s a travesty that a veteran, especially a combat vet, is treated in this manner by the State of Hawai’i DLIR, ESARO and Governor David Ige administration.
I remain hopeful this grievous injustice to Greg and family will be corrected by the Circuit Court as soon as possible. Greg knows of many colleagues and coworkers, also employed in the culinary industry, who never received unemployment benefits and have given up attempts for their earned assistance.
We speak out publicly now seeking economic and social justice for all displaced workers in Hawai’i.
Lauren Silva is from Hawai’i but presently resides in San Diego. Her family remains on Kaua'i. Lauren has worked as a singer and entertainer, but during the COVID19 pandemic, she has been volunteering to serve children, as well as veterans, who are in need.
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