Unite Here Local 5 union members returned to Waikiki and other tourist districts across the state Wednesday to remind Hawaii officials to make health and safety the key focus of the state’s tourism reopening plan.
A caravan of cars filled with union workers and supporters briefly returned the Kalakaua Avenue epicenter to near normal traffic. Waikiki tourism is normally responsible for about 6% of the state’s entire gross domestic product, but it’s been mostly quiet since mid-March when COVID-19 fears and tourism lockdowns collapsed the state’s tourism industry.
The union also held sign-waving actions on Oahu’s North Shore as well as on Kauai, Maui, and in Waikoloa and Kona on Hawaii island. Altogether, the actions drew more than 600 workers, their families and community supporters.
Fewer than half of Hawaii’s 270 main hotels, condominium hotels and timeshares have reopened, which means an unprecedented number of visitor industry employees are still unemployed. Local 5 said Wednesday that most of its 8,000 hotel and 800 airport members haven’t returned to work.
On Monday, Gov. David Ige delayed the start of a pre- arrivals testing program to Sept. 1 from an earlier Aug. 1 date. That’s both good and bad news for Local 5 members.
On one hand, they fear continued unemployment, especially with CARES Act funds set to expire Aug. 31. Most union hotel workers, who have a health care trust, are covered through September. However, most HMS Host union workers lost coverage in June.
The delay brings greater economic woe to workers. However, it does give the union more time to convince the state to ensure the industry is ready to welcome back guests and workers. The union is also lobbying the Hawaii Legislature for supplemental aid for workers.
A main issue for workers is that reopening tourism is sure to bring higher community health risks — and some would argue for not enough return.
Given that visitor arrivals are expected to come back very slowly, the industry only will be able to bring back a small percentage of workers at the start. Also, the industry likely won’t be returning significant visitor spending or tax revenue to the community for some time.
A few Local 5 workers waved signs on Wednesday saying “My job is not worth my family’s life.”
Other key messages included “No job cuts at reopening hotels,” “Workers are the tourism industry, ” and “Hawaii Legislature do your job.”
Eric Gill, Local 5 financial secretary-treasurer, said “We don’t want our jobs to be eliminated to balance the company’s books to bail them out of a bad gamble they made on a risky investment. We want to go back to work without dying. We want to go back to work and we want to be safe at work.”
Mufi Hannemann, president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Lodging &Tourism Association, said the industry is ready to reopen under new protocols and plans that have been vetted by the state Department of Health and the four county mayors. If Local 5 workers want additional protections, Hannemann said they should take it up with their employers during bargaining.
However, Gill said, so far out of a couple of dozen Local 5 hotels, only the Kahala Hotel and a few smaller properties have been willing to bargain about work conditions during the pandemic. He’s hoping progress made at the Kahala will set the standard for other Local 5 hotels.
In the meantime, Gill said the union is calling on county and state elected officials to pass laws that hold the visitor industry accountable for health and safety standards. The union also wants elected officials to ensure that visitor industry companies don’t use the pandemic as an excuse to eliminate jobs ranging from in-room housekeeping to cashiers to food and beverage servers, valets and front-desk workers. Local 5 also wants subsidies to keep unemployed workers from running out of health care.
Some hotel companies like Outrigger have taken steps to extend health care for furloughed workers. However, such commitments are difficult at both union and nonunion hotels given the extent of the challenges that Hawaii’s visitor industry is facing.
“The 14-day quarantine has decimated Hawaii’s tourism industry and it’s crushing our state’s economy due to the significant tax revenue lost and number of jobs cut,” said Sean Dee, Outrigger executive vice president &chief marketing officer. “Delaying a well- orchestrated, pre-arrival testing program only exacerbates this situation. Outrigger has been part of the fabric of this community for more than 70 years; we fully agree with and understand the need to reopen safely, but it’s extremely hard on our business when the state delays its reopening strategy just a few days from the target date and when visitor numbers were forecast to be extremely low.”
Since the quarantine was implemented, Hawaii has seen a 99% drop in arrivals compared with the same time last year.
On Tuesday only 523 visitors flew to Hawaii and the first 14 days of this month brought only 9,186 visitors. Normally on any given day in Hawaii in July, some 35,000 passengers arrive, most of them visitors. In July 2019, some 997,872 visitors arrived on planes.
“At Outrigger overall we’ve canceled more business than we’ve booked. While kamaaina staycations provide a small boost for the weekends, we’re back to under 10% occupancy on the weekdays, which simply isn’t a sustainable business model,” Dee said. “In Waikiki, two of our branded hotels have remained open and we were hoping to reopen another on Aug. 1 — but this will be delayed as a result of Monday’s announcement as will the opportunity to bring back more hosts to work.”
Even if Hawaii tourism reopens on Sept. 1, industry leaders expect occupancy to remain at very low levels for some time based both on national trends and their own booking results.
“A recent AHLA (American Hotel &Lodging Association) study showed that only 44% of Americans are planning a trip this year and more than 72% will be road trips,” Dee said. “Our numbers validated this as even when the pre-arrival testing option was set for Aug. 1 — our uptick in bookings was nominal, and in fact we saw more cancellations for August than bookings.”
Affron Herring, a food prep worker at Hilton Hawaiian Village, said workers there and at other Local 5 union hotels still are mostly in the dark about what staffing levels will look like at reopening.
Herring said Hilton Hawaiian Village had planned to reopen Aug. 14 based on the earlier Aug. 1 pre-arrivals testing program start. He said the hotel had told workers to expect a slow ramp-up with only about 12% of the workforce to return in August, about 20% in September, 30% in October and 40% in November.
“Even if they do reopen, some people may not have a job to go back to based on the occupancy of the hotel,” Herring said. “People will still have to be on unemployment.”