In a matter of weeks, Hawaii went from having one of the nation’s lowest rates of unemployment to its highest. We have never faced a challenge like this before. In 1932, during the darkest days of the Great Depression, the Honolulu Advertiser reported that “10% of the employable persons on Oahu are out of work.” Today our unemployment rate is nearly four times as high.
Tourism’s return may take years, not months, because we need to ensure that visitors aren’t bringing new waves of the virus. Experts say a vaccine is a long way off, and plans to test tourists before they arrive will be difficult to implement.
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it took over a year for TSA security measures to be implemented at U.S. airports. COVID-19 testing is likely to be far more complicated.
Most of our friends and neighbors who are suddenly without work will receive unemployment benefits to help with their basic bills. But we all know that a job is more than just a paycheck; it also gives our lives purpose. Numerous studies have demonstrated that high unemployment during the last recession led to health problems, psychological distress and suicides.
What, then, should we do if tourism is shut down for the near future? Give people work.
This is a less radical idea than it may seem. In the 1930s, the federal government provided jobs through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Millions of Americans were employed to assist with public works projects, but also to play music, perform plays and build hiking trails. The beautiful murals at the Hawaii State Library — a work of public art familiar to many of us — were a WPA project.
We need a similar program to establish a robust partnership with government, businesses and communities, providing meaningful work for people who want to contribute. Paid employment would be best, but work can also entail volunteering, going back to school or learning a new skill. Some people who lost their jobs could help with COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.
The state unemployment office could also contact the 227,000 people who have recently filed for unemployment to survey their interests and match idle workers with volunteer and educational opportunities. In Great Britain, when the government asked for volunteers to help deliver groceries to senior citizens, over 750,000 people signed up in less than a week. Both volunteers and the vulnerable groups they serve stay safe by practicing social distancing. The groceries and money are exchanged without physical contact.
We can do this in Hawaii, too. When COVID-19 is sufficiently contained for schools to reopen, we will need more intense and frequent cleaning of all surfaces. In addition, many students could use extra help with tutoring and after-school programs.
Now is also the time to think about educational opportunities that will provide better job prospects for some unemployed workers, while promoting economic diversity and sustainability for Hawaii. This time away from work for public health purposes could give people a chance to enroll in courses at the University of Hawaii or upgrade job skills through other online training programs. Studies predict an increasing demand for health-care workers, cybersecurity experts and computer programmers. Why not use state funds for retraining?
This is a worldwide pandemic. There is a lot we can’t control. But even with limited resources, we can provide a sense of purpose to the unemployed while the hospitality industry is on hold.
Let’s use this time to prepare Hawaii for a brighter future.
Colin Moore is director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii-Manoa; Kenna Stormogipson is policy analyst at the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center.