Unite Here Local 5 union members, who supply the labor for many of Hawaii’s best known hotels, held a car caravan in Waikiki on Wednesday to demand that public safety and the needs of Hawaii’s workers come first in any plan to reopen tourism.
About 100 carloads of people drove down otherwise-deserted Kalakaua Avenue before ending the protest at Kapiolani Park. About 9,500 of the 12,000 hospitality, health care and food service workers that Local 5 represents have become unemployed since the state’s tourism industry collapsed amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
The protesting hotel workers don’t want the state, in a rush to restart tourism, to fail to protect the public from a second wave of COVID-19 cases.
Tourism statewide has nearly zeroed out following the March 26 start of a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine for incoming passengers to Hawaii, which was extended to interisland travelers April 1.
Before the quarantine about 30,000 passengers arrived daily. On Tuesday only 235 out-of-state visitors came to Hawaii, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Reopening tourism is a thorny process everywhere and maybe even more so in Hawaii, where the state’s isolation allowed it to largely seal its borders.
Successful tourism reopening plans must provide assurances that Hawaii’s community and workforce will stay safe.
The union protest comes as members of Hawaii’s visitor industry are clamoring for Gov. David Ige to pick a date to reopen tourism. Ige said Tuesday that he expects to lift the quarantine for interisland passengers soon, but he stopped short of announcing a date or providing details about reopening tourism on a broader scale.
Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association recently released health and safety protocols to help pave the way for reopening tourism.
But Eric Gill, Local 5 financial secretary-treasurer, said HLTA’s plan is inadequate.
“Testing of frontline workers and visitors needs to be part of any plan to reopen Hawaii tourism,” Gill said.
Gill said Hawaii’s hotel industry has not committed to any of the union’s proposals in a “Safe Hotels, Safe Hawaii” report the union released last month.
Hawaii’s hotel industry workers can’t return to work without a commitment from employers or the state Legislature to provide health benefits for those who don’t have enough hours to qualify or are furloughed, Gill added.
Most Local 5 hotel workers have health care coverage through the end of September because of a health care trust fund, but the union said dipping into its savings is unsustainable.
Workers also need whistleblower protection and assurances that hotels will adopt more flexible absenteeism policies, Gill said. The union also wants job protections so that hotels don’t use the crisis to make job cuts.
“They plan to reopen and leave 40% of us at home forever,” Gill said, adding that hotels have cited social distancing as a reason to trim jobs in departments ranging from food and beverage to valet to front desk to doorman and even to in-room housekeeping.
“Why would we want these hotels taking up our beaches and soaking up our social services and all of our infrastructure money if they don’t even give jobs,” he said. “The whole payoff to Hawaii is the jobs. If we reopen without jobs, what the hell are we doing?”
Meanwhile the visitor industry’s greatest champion, Hawaii Tourism Authority, has lost much of its funding. HTA relies on revenue from the state’s hotel tax to market Hawaii as a tourist destination.
HTA’s fiscal year 2020 budget was $86 million.
HTA president and CEO Chris Tatum said the fiscal year 2021 budget will be reduced to $55.2 million if Ige allows the agency to spend $5 million from its rainy day fund. HTA plans to reduce its branding budget from more than $51 million in fiscal year 2020 to about $28 million, a 44.5 % drop.
Pattie Herman, HTA’s vice president of marketing and product development, said the agency will continue marketing to the United States, Japan, Canada, Oceania and Korea, but has cut efforts in China, Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Europe.
“Our hope is that the economy starts coming back and the (hotel tax) starts flowing again and we’ll have an opportunity to invest in our future marketing and positioning and branding efforts,” Tatum said.
But so far, nobody knows when that will be. HLTA has asked Ige and the four county mayors to lift the interisland passenger quarantine to allow kamaaina travel to resume by the end of May or in June. Hoteliers that take a risk and reopen for kamaaina travel are seeking assurances that if the process is successful, the state would agree to lift the out-of-state passenger quarantine July 1.
Even if that happens, it’s not like Hawaii’s hotel industry would bounce back immediately. More than 130 hotels closed across the state and only some of them could afford to reopen if they were limited to kamaaina travelers.
Many local families are too financially devastated to travel. Flights also have been drastically cut.
Ben Rafter, CEO of OLS Hotels & Resorts, said it’s imperative that the state set a tourism reopening date to allow Hawaii’s visitor industry to get ready to restart once restrictions are lifted.
“Every day that goes by is making the hole that we have to dig out of much bigger,” Rafter said. “The longer that we don’t have a date, the more hotels will be pressured to stop paying health care. Also, more and more of the furloughs will become permanent as businesses, not only hotels, start looking at doing things differently. The reality is that tens of thousands of jobs have already been lost.”
Mufi Hannemann, HLTA president and CEO, said Ige is open to lifting the interisland quarantine; however, the county mayors still require convincing that interisland tourism can safely proceed.