Crystal Fujiwara often starts her workday at 6:30 a.m. at Waipahu Waikele Pet Hospital where she helps restrain animals that need their blood drawn or an IV inserted, does the hospital’s laundry and takes care of boarding pets, among other tasks.
After a busy eight-hour shift, she then makes her way through rush hour traffic to her job as a hostess at Tanaka of Tokyo in Waikiki, where she finishes at 9:30 p.m.
“I’m exhausted, if I’m going to be honest,” said Fujiwara, who grew up in Aiea and now lives in Palolo Valley. But what’s demoralizing, she says, is that after all that work she’s still not making enough money.
Her full-time job as a kennel attendant pays $11.25 an hour, not much above the $10.10 minimum wage. Her part-time hostess job pays $12 an hour.
Fujiwara, 21, is among a large segment of Hawaii residents who don’t earn what the state has determined to be a living wage — the level of income required to cover basic needs, such as housing, food, transportation and clothing.
The only way she’s able to make it is by sharing a bedroom with her boyfriend in a house with three other roommates. That gets her rent down to $375 a month. Utilities, gas money and groceries pretty much absorb the rest of her paychecks.
Statewide, 44 percent of single adults, 48 percent of families with two adults and two children, and 22 percent of families with two adults and no children didn’t earn enough income to cover basic needs in 2016, according to an analysis by Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, which calculates what it calls a “self-sufficiency income standard” for each county.
On Oahu a single adult in 2016 needed to earn $15.79 an hour to cover their most basic needs, or $33,350 annually. A single parent with one child in preschool needed to earn $27.21 an hour, or $58,526 annually. For a two-adult family with two young children, each needed to earn $18.46 an hour, for a total household income of $77,968 annually.
Nate Hix, who founded an advocacy group Living Wage Hawaii, is hoping that a significant hike in the minimum wage during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in January, will help alleviate the struggles of many Hawaii residents, and he believes the political momentum is there.
In recent years, Hix said, the push has been for $15 an hour. But Living Wage Hawaii is advocating for it to be gradually raised to $17.
“We just realized $15 is not even a living wage here, whereas it is for most of the country,” said Hix. “So if we are going to continue to have these struggles to get to $15, we might as well start asking for what we actually need and recognize the minimum wage should at least be what people need to afford their basic needs.”
While Hawaii politicians are overwhelmingly Democratic and often lend their voice to the importance of higher wages, the political reality has been that any hike in the minimum wage is met with stiff resistance from businesses, and specific proposals in the Legislature rarely get much traction. Hix isn’t oblivious to these challenges. But with a majority of state lawmakers signaling their support this year for a living wage, he hopes the time will be now.
“Obviously, we hope with the overwhelming support for this that they will make sure democracy works,” Hix said.
Lots of talk, little action
Political momentum for a “living wage” in Hawaii has been most visible recently with the ongoing strike of about 2,700 Hawaii hotel workers from Unite Here Local 5 who for weeks have toted signs reading, “One Job Should Be Enough.”
The striking workers have been picketing the Marriott-managed Sheraton Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian Hotel, Westin Moana Surfrider, Sheraton Princess Kaiulani and Sheraton Maui for weeks and are part of a larger strike by workers at Marriott hotels in cities on the mainland. The average Local 5 housekeeper makes about $22 an hour, or $45,760 annually if they work a 40-hour week. The union is seeking a $3 wage hike.
Hawaii’s striking workers have received support from Hawaii’s most prominent political leaders, including Gov. David Ige, who has said he won’t cross the picket line, and members of Hawaii’s congressional delegation. U.S. Sen Mazie Hirono and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have both visited the picket line in a show of support.
Hawaii’s Democratic Party and the Honolulu City Council have also approved resolutions that support a living wage, echoing a broader national campaign financed by labor groups called the Fight for $15.
The Democratic Party’s resolution that passed earlier this year recognizes that while $15 isn’t a living wage for most in Hawaii, it’s a start. The resolution calls for the minimum wage to be increased to $15 by 2021 and adjusted thereafter to keep pace with inflation.
But ultimately it rests with the Legislature to make any changes to the minimum wage. Both chambers are dominated by Democrats, and 27 out of the 51 members of the House of Representatives and 17 out of 25 members of the Senate, as well as Ige, have signaled their support for the Democratic Party resolution, according to surveys conducted this year by Living Wage Hawaii and the Hawaii Democratic Party.
Still, that doesn’t mean it will be an easy sell when the legislative session reconvenes. Many of the top leaders in both the House and Senate didn’t indicate their support for the resolution, which doesn’t necessarily mean they oppose it. But a more troubling sign for advocates is the Legislature’s poor record of taking up bills that increase the minimum wage or tie it to inflation. Seven bills introduced during the 2017 and 2018 legislative sessions never even made it out of their respective chamber.
For instance, Senate Bill 107, which would have increased the minimum wage to $15 an hour, passed the Judiciary and Labor Committee last year but died after the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee never scheduled it for a hearing.
The bill was met with stiff resistance from business groups, including the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, Hawaii Business League, Hawaii Food Industry Association, Retail Merchants of Hawaii, ABC stores and individual, small businesses. Raising the minimum wage would hurt local businesses, they argue, and in some cases could even force businesses to eliminate jobs altogether. Some businesses say they may be forced to increase the cost of goods or services, which could lead to a loss of customers, or shut down completely.
Hawaii is also unique in that the state’s Prepaid Health Care Act requires employers to provide health insurance to all employees working 20 or more hours a week, increasing the overall cost of employees. Businesses argue that increasing the minimum wage could entice more businesses to reduce workers’ hours to under 20 hours a week to save on health care costs.
Wide range of opinions
House Speaker Scott Saiki said he didn’t have a position at this point on whether he would support an increase in the minimum wage. But he said he was particularly concerned about state projections on the rise of health care premiums. The state estimates that premiums for individuals enrolled in small group plans could nearly double in 10 years, he noted. “The projected costs of Prepaid Health Care is very sobering,” said Saiki.
Saiki said that the Legislature has also been resistant to increase the minimum wage in recent years because in 2014 lawmakers passed a measure that gradually increased it from $7.25 per hour in 2014 to $10.10 in 2018.
Senate President Ron Kouchi, who is not listed as a supporter of the Democratic Party’s resolution on a living wage, didn’t respond to a request to comment.
Sen. Karl Rhoads has sponsored bills to raise the minimum wage and said he hoped his colleagues would at least consider tying the minimum wage to inflation so that it didn’t lose value over time. He said that it made sense to look at an increase now, when the state isn’t experiencing a recession.
“Everyone talks about it being all Democratic, but there is actually a wide range of opinions on a lot of issues at the Legislature,” said Rhoads when asked about the difficulty of getting minimum wage bills passed. “And there’s a lot of small-‘c’ conservative Democrats in the Legislature, and they just don’t see the world that way.”
“At the national level we have the reputation of being very blue … but Hawaii is actually a very conservative place in many ways and I think that is why don’t see movement on this very often,” he added.
Fujiwara, who is left working long hours for low pay, says she loves her home but sometimes thinks about moving to the mainland where the cost of living is cheaper.
So does Li Nahshon, 39, who earns $13.75 an hour at Macy’s in Waikiki. She cuts down on her costs by not having a car.
“At the moment it can be done,” she said of her financial situation. “But I’m not sure for how long. We have our days where we talk about, ‘Oh it’s really, really hard,’ and other days where it is amazing. It is Hawaii.”