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Editorial: Find new jobs for Hawaii’s idle public workers

  • COURTESY PHOTO
                                Hawaii employs roughly 73,000 workers — but Human Resources Director Ryker Wada was unable on Tuesday to say how many of them are getting paid to do nothing, have been redeployed or even furloughed during this coronavirus pandemic.

    COURTESY PHOTO

    Hawaii employs roughly 73,000 workers — but Human Resources Director Ryker Wada was unable on Tuesday to say how many of them are getting paid to do nothing, have been redeployed or even furloughed during this coronavirus pandemic.

It is downright disturbing and utterly unacceptable that the human resources director for Hawaii’s government does not have good answers — let alone accurate counts — on how many state workers are getting paid to do nothing during the statewide stay-at-home order.

It has been more than two weeks since Gov. David Ige announced a strategy — on March 17, then called “15 Days to Slow the Spread of COVID-19” — that among other things, directed all state department and agency heads to put their employees into categories of essential and nonessential. That assessment was — is — imperative to enable tough decisions regarding payroll, decisions that most private-sector companies have already been forced to make. The public purse deserves no less.

The state employs roughly 73,000 workers — but Human Resources Director Ryker Wada was unable on Tuesday to say how many of them are getting paid to do nothing, have been redeployed or even furloughed.

Wada told the Special Senate Committee on COVID-19 that he doesn’t yet have a breakdown of how many staffers are working as usual, are working remotely, or simply not working but remain on the taxpayers’ payroll.

“We have been working on this diligently since COVID has taken off,” he said. “We are continuing to work on it.”

Simply unbelievable. Lawmakers had reportedly asked for a breakdown some three weeks ago. Not only has this not been accomplished, Wada didn’t have a timetable on when it would be. The March 17 directive specifically required all department chiefs to put employees into three categories:

>> Essential functions, requiring them to report to work.

>> Non-essential, but able to work remotely at home via telework.

>> Non-essential, and unable to work remotely via telework or otherwise. These employees could be reassigned within their job description and classification.

Ideally, workers should be kept working — but only if they can be productive and have work to earn the paycheck. Redeploying some during this crisis into overwhelmed state departments makes perfect sense: the Labor Department, for example, is being deluged by unemployment claims, nearly 161,000 in March alone; it says it is asking Human Resources for redeployed workers. And the Health Department, surely, has an increased workload from coronavirus monitoring that includes non-medical logistics and tracking.

The governor must swiftly resolve this situation, to demand immediate accounting from each department on who’s working and who’s not, and act accordingly. That means reassigning workers as needed, paring down payroll by reducing hours, or furloughs without pay.

Ige has the wherewithal to compel such sorting. His March 5 emergency proclamation allows him to suspend, for the good of all in the state, collective bargaining in public employment; and includes workers not in collective bargaining. The unions, too, must step up and allow creativity to keep as many as possible gainfully employed, perhaps enabling like-skill hours to be fulfilled by helping nonprofits meet community needs.

The drastic but necessary statewide shutdown is slowing state, and counties’ tax revenues to a trickle. Hotel occupancy and passenger flights in and out of Hawaii are virtually nonexistent. All the airports are near-empty, as are many state nonessential offices that don’t deal directly with public health and welfare. Clearly, not all 73,000 can work at this time.

Getting a clear count of viable employees, quickly, is necessary also to plan for the future. Even as the public- health crisis surges today, economic recovery seeds must be sown. Many millions of state dollars will be needed to restart now-dormant sectors, ranging from retail to restaurants. The state — and city and county governments, too — can ill afford to pay employees for idling.

The entire state itself is in dire atrophy. Ige and government bureaucrats need to move now to repurpose idle workers or furlough them, to insulate Hawaii as much as possible against untenable bloat.

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