Thursday, August 23, 2001

COLA deal will bring $80 million to Hawaii

Federal workers here were
underpaid for years when the
cost of living is considered

By Rod Antone

FEDERAL WORKERS in Hawaii will get up to $80 million in settlement money from the government starting this fall, officials say.

The money is part of a $232.5 million reimbursement for white-collar civilian federal employees in Hawaii, Guam, Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands for a differential in cost-of-living allowances, or COLA.

"We're filling out all the paperwork now and supposed to be getting the check in a couple months," said Hawaii Kai postal worker Gerald Montes. "I'm getting about $4,400."

"It all depends on your start date," he added. "I started working in Hawaii in 1994. Some of the guys who've been here longer are getting like $8,000."

Dean Hoe, a member and director of the Oahu Defense COLA Committee, which monitors COLA issues, said eligible federal employees could be getting as little as a few dollars or as much as $20,000 depending on their pay grade between October 1990 and October 1998. The settlement also covers former employees and survivors of deceased employees.

COLA Defense officials said that from Oct. 1, 1990, to Oct. 1, 1998, cost-of-living allowances were too low for federal employees in Hawaii and other affected areas.

Federal employees filed suit in the Virgin Island, and an out-of-court settlement was reached last year, boosting Oahu's COLA to 25 percent of an employee's salary from 22.5 percent.

Neighbor island COLA increases followed: Maui up to 23.75 percent from 22.5 percent, Kauai up to 23.5 percent from 22.5 percent, and the Big Island up to 16.5 percent from 15 percent.

There are an estimated 60,000 federal employees worldwide who qualify for the COLA reimbursement.

In Hawaii there about 15,000 eligible workers, COLA Defense officials said, including postal workers, FBI agents, clerks, firefighters and other administrative and executive federal workers.

Add retirees and family members of deceased employees, and the number of those eligible in Hawaii jumps up to about 25,000.

"I'm glad we're getting back pay that was due us," said Hoe.

Hoe said he has been deluged lately with calls from employees and retirees asking when they will be receiving their verification notices, as well as "Where's my check? Where's my money?"

The answer came this week when many eligible for COLA reimbursement found their notices in the mail.

"There's not that much to fill out," said federal mediator Ken Kawamoto, who got his verification notice yesterday. "Just sign your name and fill out a tax form so you can get state taxes taken out."

"I didn't even know about this until they announced a settlement last year."

Hoe would not say how much he is getting back but called it a "fair amount" and says he plans on using it to pay bills and for travel.

Hoe added that said if eligible employees fill out paperwork now, they could receive their checks as early as November -- just in time for Christmas, though not everyone is planning to spend their windfall right away.

"That check is on hold already," said federal firefighter Gary Flores, who will receive about $4,900. "It's going in the bank for a rainy day."

Kawamoto, who will be getting about $4,500, said he did not know what he would be using the money for -- "maybe to extend our patio," he said.

"I guess whatever my wife, Sue, wants to do with it," he added, laughing. "I don't make any decisions at home."

The deadline for eligible federal employees to file for reimbursement is February 2002.

Claim verification forms will continue to go out until the end of the month.

COLA Defense officials warned that those eligible for back pay but who have not received a verification form by Sept. 30 should call the settlement administrator at 1-877-480-2652.

Employees with questions or who disagree with how much they are supposed to receive from the federal government are also asked to contact the settlement administrator.

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