Companies that import fresh produce to the islands have paid thousands of dollars in extra costs since December to get their shipments inspected before they spoil—a bill that eventually gets passed along to everyday Hawaii shoppers.
Layoffs that began in December—along with 18 mandatory furlough days—have cut the number of state quarantine inspectors at busy Honolulu Airport and the Sand Island maritime inspection facility to 40 from 58 and narrowed the window that shippers like Armstrong Produce Ltd. can get their goods processed each day.
So Armstrong, Hawaii’s largest produce distributor, has joined other importers in paying a weekly total of about $300 in unexpected expenses to bring in short-handed inspectors on overtime.
The price tag keeps adding up for an island state that imports 80 percent of everything that’s consumed. And even if Gov. Linda Lingle signs a bill on her desk that would restore 22 of the 23 inspector positions across the state beginning July 1, agricultural officials say the pressure on inspectors, importers and shoppers would not ease for weeks and, more likely, months.
"We can’t have the food chain get disrupted for the consumers of Hawaii," said Armstrong President Mark Teruya. "Every commodity that comes in from the mainland, whether it’s by air or by ocean containers, needs to be inspected. Everybody’s in the same situation. … All the importers have to incur these costs."
UPON CLOSER INSPECTION
The state agriculture department’s quarantine branch inspection staff has been hurt by state cutbacks:
Full-time equivalent positions:
» Fiscal year 2009: 18
Inspection hours at Honolulu Airport:
» 2009: 5:45 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.
BOUND FOR THE ISLANDS
More and more fresh fruits and vegetables are being imported to Hawaii:
Source: State Department of Agriculture
The shortage of inspectors especially hits importers that fly in the most perishable produce that can’t be refrigerated on their five-hour flights from the West Coast.
In the Hawaii produce industry, "everybody’s fighting to come in early," said Neal Otani, president of Y. Fukunaga Products Ltd. "Anything that comes in after 8 or 8:30 at night, we get whacked with that overtime charge. We have no choice but to pay that overtime if we want it out of the airport."
Since the state layoffs and furloughs began as a response to Hawaii’s stagnant economy, Otani said, importers have been passing the unexpected overtime costs on to retailers, who end up raising the prices that consumers pay at grocery stores.
"That’s how it works," Otani said. "If we kept eating all of the costs, we wouldn’t stay in business very long."
Three waves of layoffs cost the state Department of Agriculture the equivalent of 23 full-time produce inspectors, said Domingo Cravalho, the quarantine branch’s inspection and compliance section chief.
As the number of inspectors on all islands fell to 73 from 96, the department cobbled together a schedule that continued inspections seven days a week at Hawaii’s busiest entry point, Honolulu Airport.
But instead of inspecting produce and other goods from 5:45 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. every day, the airport inspection hours have now been reduced to 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., with inspectors working until 8:30 p.m. to finish their paperwork, Cravalho said.
"That’s it," Cravalho said. "Any cargo that arrives after 8 o’clock won’t be inspected that day."
Produce shippers normally don’t pay fees to have their goods inspected during normal working hours.
Airlines are assessed a fee of 50 cents for every 1,000 pounds of cargo, Cravalho said, but few pay it. Another bill on Lingle’s desk would institute penalties for failing to comply with the fee.
"The money collected thus far wouldn’t even pay for the annual salaries of two inspectors," Cravalho said.
Otherwise, there are no fees to directly pay the costs of inspecting all the produce that arrives every week.
So shippers have been paying inspectors on overtime to process their shipments.
With an average base salary of $35 an hour per inspector, plus overtime, plus meals, plus mileage, shippers have been averaging a total of about $300 a week in additional costs, Cravalho estimated.
And starting July 1, six more furlough days will go into effect, leaving his staff even more short-handed.
"Not only will we have fewer bodies to perform our operations," Cravalho said, "we’ll have to throw in more days that inspectors will be off."
So he hopes to see positions restored over the next several months—and Cravalho knows that his idled inspectors are anxious to come back.
"They’re champing at the bit," he said, "and ready to work."