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Desolate peak reached in Hawaii unemployment

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                                A woman pushes her belongings along Kuhio Avenue, May 16, in Waikiki.


    A woman pushes her belongings along Kuhio Avenue, May 16, in Waikiki.

Hawaii’s unemployment rate shot up to a really terrible level in April: a record 22.3%, or nearly 1 in 4 people in the state’s workforce.

As bad as that is, the state’s chief economist offered a couple of positive takeaways from the government calculation released Thursday: First, it appeared to some that the figure was going to be worse; and second, employment already should be rebounding.

The jobless report released by the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations was the first official tally of Hawaii’s unemployment rate in a month with full impacts from the coronavirus pandemic and business restrictions that began in March.

William Kunstman, DLIR spokesman, said Hawaii’s unemployment rate has never been higher or risen as much as it did last month.

“Nothing comes close,” he said.

April’s seasonally adjusted 22.3% rate compared with 2.4% in March and 2.7% in January and February.

Hawaii’s rate last month also compared with a national rate that rose to 14.7% in April from 4.4% in March.

According to the report, 139,900 people were jobless in April, up from 15,950 in March.

A DLIR survey of employers suggests that 70,000 jobs were lost in the leisure and hospitality industry, including 64,300 at accommodation and food service establishments.

The next-biggest loss was in state government at 11,700 jobs largely centered on support staff at public schools closed due to COVID-19.

Health care and social- assistance employers lost 3,100 jobs. Construction jobs decreased by 800. County government jobs slipped by 100. Two sectors, financial/insurance and information, had no change in jobs, the survey suggested.

Because most job losses are tied to tourism, the workforce on neighbor islands where more of the economy revolves around the visitor industry suffered bigger blows.

The highest unemployment rate by island was Maui at 36.1%, followed by Kauai at 34.4% and then Hawaii island at 24.0%.

Honolulu’s rate was 20.0%. The lowest unemployment rates were on Molokai, at 12%, and Lanai, at 5.5%.

Rates by island are not adjusted for seasonal changes, unlike the state and national rates.

Eugene Tian, chief economist with the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, said the state rate was not a surprise.

“It is as expected,” he said.

There have been projections in past weeks that unemployment could be over 30%. But Tian said such figures were based on initial unemployment claim filings.

“That is only one part of the story,” he said, explaining that in some cases people get called back to work, and in other cases applicants don’t qualify as unemployed.

DBEDT reported Thursday that 247,292 initial unemployment claims have been filed this year. If all those claims qualified for compensation and no filers regained employment, the resulting unemployment rate could be around 39%.

The state unemployment rate is derived largely from a monthly telephone survey of about 1,000 households.

Tian said he expects Hawaii unemployment rates for May and June to subside from April’s record because of forgivable federal Paycheck Protection Program loans that allowed small businesses to restore lost pay for workers dislodged amid the coronavirus pandemic.

On the downside, Tian expects that Hawaii’s unemployment rate will be the worst or almost the worst among states. That ranking is scheduled to be released today.

“It would not be a surprise if we are No. 2 or No. 1,” he said.

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