Martin Charles Hennessey has made a name and a nice living for himself as Marty Dread, also known as Hawaii’s reggae ambassador. Until recently he had a contract with the Pacific Whale Foundation performing weekly sunset shows on the organization’s tour boats.
But when COVID-19 hit Hawaii’s shores, Hennessey — like tens of thousands of others in the state — found himself abruptly out of work.
“Well, it’s hitting me hard. I went from making a great salary to basically zero,” he said. “But luckily, I live on a farm where I can walk outside and pick fruit for dinner. I’m in a good position compared to some people, but we are all in the same boat when it comes to getting our gigs canceled.”
Nearly 102,000 initial unemployment claims were filed in Hawaii just in the two-week period ending April 4, according to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. On Maui alone the number was more than 21,120 for the same period.
Although the state has opened unemployment assistance to independent contractors and “gig workers,” local officials said last week those claimants will have to wait even longer for benefits because the U.S. Department of Labor hadn’t provided states with guidance on their applications.
Hennessey, who has opened for the likes of Willie Nelson and toured internationally, said he was contemplating another tour before the new coronavirus emerged as a public health threat. He made the decision to self-quarantine at home in Haiku and shift his focus from performances to other creative endeavors.
While waiting it out, Hennessey, 50, has been refurbishing his instruments and working to release six albums on his own record label, Five Corners Music, by June. He’s also been hosting live remote performances and working on his farm.
He said while there have certainly been challenges, the quarantine has been productive.
“I’m getting more done in a week then I have in the last five years,” he said, half jokingly.
But not all self-employed residents on the island are able to continue their work from home. From surf instructors to hairstylists, wedding photographers and more, Maui’s independent contractors and gig workers are feeling the weight of a dire situation as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Hawaii has grown to well over 400, and the prospect for a quick rebound of the island’s tourist-based economy looks bleak.
Photographer Drew Sulock, 39, of Kihei said he’s at an impasse in terms of growing his business. Sulock who shoots abstract and outdoor photography that he sells in local shops and at art fairs.
“My income will basically be nonexistent until the tourists begin to come back and the art fairs reopen,” he said. “I do not see a way for me to continue any of the photography business while we are in quarantine, but I am keeping my eye out for any temporary jobs that come up due to this situation.
“Other than that, I am cutting all unnecessary spending and living off my savings,” Sulock said.
And he’s not alone. Kevin Kennedy, 43, of Lahaina is a surf instructor at Goofy Foot Surf and Stand Up Paddle School at 505 Front St. With the stay-at-home and social-distancing precautions in place, Kennedy said the surf shop had no choice but to close its doors temporarily.
Kennedy said he briefly offered private lessons but is now living off his savings until the tourists come back.
“This is hard and I’m feeling everyone’s anxiety at this time, but I am doing my best to stay happy and I hope it doesn’t last too long,” he said.
Jenna Thompson, a 25-year-old barber at Beyond Beauty in Lahaina, said she’s also experiencing some pressure. She just moved to the islands from the mainland a few months before the COVID-19 outbreak. Her parents still live in Louisiana and Mississippi, where her mother is an emergency room nurse and her father a respiratory therapist. She said she’s concerned for her parents’ health on top of being out of work but is doing her best to remain positive.
“It’s kind of hard on all of my family right now,” she said. “There’s a little bit of comfort that everyone is pushing through this together. We all know how each other is feeling.”
Thompson said she was lucky to get one last paycheck before the coronavirus lockdown, and is keeping herself occupied by gardening and doing projects around her house with her roommate. In the meantime, Thompson said, all she can do is wait and pray.
“This is a hard time for the hit, but at the end of the day, I refuse to be consumed by darkness, ever. No matter what happens, I have faith, and I won’t be so easily shaken. My business has been blessed by this community, and I hope it brings us all together more than ever,” she said.
DLIR spokesman Bill Kunstman said there is some relief available for those in similar situations throughout the islands. “There is eligibility for some employed workers, independent contractors, part-time workers and things like that,” he said.
According to a recent announcement, a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance option will provide unemployment benefits to individuals who typically do not qualify for compensation. Under the new program, self-employed workers, gig workers, independent contractors and those with limited work histories can apply for assistance.
The program was established under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (Families First) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which made provisions to Hawaii’s unemployment insurance systems.
Benefits under this new program are available for qualifying individuals for up to 39 weeks. Independent contractors throughout Hawaii can start the process of applying for unemployment online at huiclaims2020.hawaii.gov/initial-claim.