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Hawaii workers balance need for paycheck with risk of contracting coronavirus

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Geraldine Acoba works at the Sheraton Waikiki and is one of thousands of workers across the island who want to get back to work but are concerned about safety conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Geraldine Acoba works at the Sheraton Waikiki and is one of thousands of workers across the island who want to get back to work but are concerned about safety conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM
                                Pedestrians strolled Sunday along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, some with masks, others without.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARADVERTISER.COM

    Pedestrians strolled Sunday along Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki, some with masks, others without.

  • CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / JUNE 16
                                Interisland quarantine travel restrictions were lifted for passengers starting June 16. Hawaiian Airlines customer service agent Sujin Kwon checked in Sione Kava’s luggage before his trip to Maui.

    CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / JUNE 16

    Interisland quarantine travel restrictions were lifted for passengers starting June 16. Hawaiian Airlines customer service agent Sujin Kwon checked in Sione Kava’s luggage before his trip to Maui.

It’s a Catch-22 situation.

On one hand, unemployed workers want to return to the jobs that they left when COVID-19 forced Hawaii’s businesses to cut hours, reduce staff or close. Last week’s ending of the federal CARES Act money that bolstered unemployment payments by $600 per week has increased the urgency for many to resume their previous work lives.

On the other hand, with the health impacts of COVID-19 as bad as they ever were in Hawaii, many of the state’s unemployed fear work callbacks.

The risks for workers, especially for those who have front-facing customer roles or who work in jobs where social distancing is difficult, were underscored by the July 21 death of Jeff Kurtzman, 60, a Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant since 1986. Kurtzman was among 17 Hawaiian employees who tested positive for COVID-19 who were part of a training cluster at the carrier’s Honolulu headquarters.

This push and pull is playing out throughout Hawaii, but perhaps nowhere near as poignantly as among Hawaii’s school and hotel workers, who have sought to delay reopenings until they are assured that workers can return to their jobs safely.

The public school year has been postponed to Aug. 17 from Tuesday due in part to pushback from the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers — the unions that represent school employees from principals to teachers to counselors, clerks, cafeteria workers, maintenance workers and janitors.

Public school teachers returned to work Wednesday, but the school unions didn’t want to bring back students until employees were able to undergo nine days of training covering health and safety measures and distance learning.

Unite Here Local 5, which represents around 8,000 hotel workers statewide and 800 airport workers, has held several caravan and sign-waving actions to highlight concerns about the need for hotels and other tourism employers to adopt adequate safety procedures and worker protections. So far, the union says, only the Kahala Hotel & Resort has been willing to bargain about new safety protocols and what they’ll mean for workers.

Early in the pandemic, the Hawaii Lodging & Tourism Association developed new health and safety protocols, with some properties in the state electing to implement additional requirements.

Hawaii’s organized hotel union workers generally support an industry push to require guests to wear face coverings in public spaces and practice social distancing.

But they don’t support some of the other details championed by another industry group, the American Hotel & Lodging Association, as part of its “Stay Safe” guest checklist, which union workers say ultimately could cost jobs.

In addition to wearing face coverings and social distancing, AHLA’s list recommends that guests choose contactless options when available for reservations, check-ins, room serv­ice and payments. It also suggests that guests ask for daily in-room cleaning only when necessary and have room-service orders delivered outside of their room. Guests are advised not to travel if they are ill or have had contact with anyone diagnosed with COVID-19.

Kekoa McClellan, spokesman for the American Hotel & Lodging Association Hawaii, said the industry understands the “extraordinarily high stakes of welcoming back visitors to our state, which is why Hawaii’s hotels are going above and beyond to safeguard both our guests and the men and women who make up Hawaii’s tourism sector’s workforce.”

“We are adopting industry-wide standards reviewed by the CDC and are working closely with state and county health officials to ensure we are providing safe, healthy environments for both workers and guests,” McClellan said. “Whenever Hawaii is ready to safely reopen tourism, you can rest assured that Hawaii’s hotels will be ready too, cleaner and safer than ever before.”

But Geraldine Acoba, a Local 5 housekeeper at the Sheraton Waikiki for 13 years, said she and fellow union members fear some properties have far to go and ultimately might come up short.

Acoba, who was furloughed April 10, said she needs to return to work soon. The ending of the $600 per week “plus-up” funds means money will start running out quickly, she said.

“It was just right to pay our mortgage and utilities, and we had been eating from anything we could from our backyard (garden) to save money,” Acoba said. “Without the plus-up it will be hard. We were barely making it. We’ve got bills to pay.”

Acoba said she’d like to get back to work due to her financial predicament; however, based on the findings of Local 5 hotel inspections, she’s scared to return. A recent Local 5 inspection at the Sheraton Waikiki showed that signs hadn’t been posted to limit guests in elevators, and workers were still expected to sign into work using their fingers on a touch pad, she said.

“I don’t feel it’s safe to go back to work,” Acoba said. “I have two elderly parents at home and children. I also worry that if we don’t go back to work safely that it gets spread to everyone in the community. Sometimes I ride the bus — that’s what I worry, too. If I’m not safe, maybe the whole bus gets infected.”

A Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant also contacted the Honolulu Star-Advertiser questioning the resumption of flight attendant training so soon after Kurtzman’s death, especially when few planes are flying and many workers are facing furloughs and layoffs.

After Kurtzman’s death Hawaiian halted training and cooperated with authorities— testing all flight attendant instructors and asking approximately 60 employees who have been through recent training to self- quarantine and monitor their health.

Hawaiian Airlines spokesman Alex Da Silva said the carrier resumed flight attendant training last week. Da Silva said training now incorporates “stricter health protocols, including the use of face masks, smaller class sizes and social distancing, frequent cleaning and disinfection of equipment, among other measures.”

Joni Kashiwai, AFA-CWA president at Hawaiian Airlines, said, “It is a shame that the government has failed to put together a coordinated plan across the aviation industry to address the COVID-19 crisis.”

It’s not just Hawaiian Airlines that has had to contend with COVID-19 work-related incidents, which with increased community spread now seem to spring up daily.

On July 27, health authorities said they were searching for people who may have been exposed to the new coronavirus this month at two Honolulu bars: Brix & Bones at 1217 Hopaka St. and Arena 808 at 1020 Keeaumoku St. The DOH said it had found five cases of COVID-19 associated with these establishments, and as many as seven other positive cases potentially linked with the clusters.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell closed bars again for at least three weeks starting Friday. Caldwell’s order was in reaction to record-high COVID cases in Hawaii, where coronavirus cases were in the triple digits every day from Wednesday to Friday. Of Friday’s 123 new COVID-19 cases, 119 were on Oahu; only four were on Maui.

On Friday it was reported that employees at Bank of Hawaii, Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and Kamehameha Schools tested positive for the virus.

On Saturday the city reported that a paramedic for the Honolulu Emergency Services Department stationed at Charlie One in Liliha had become the first employee in the department to test positive for COVID-19. On Sunday, EMS reported another employee, who is stationed at Pawaa One, on Kapahulu Avenue in Waikiki, also had tested positive.

Since the pandemic began, the city said that Honolulu EMS has treated and transported more than 90 patients who have tested positive for COVID-19. As of Sunday, 11 paramedics and EMTs, including the positive employees, were on quarantine.

The Honolulu Fire Department on Sunday announced a seventh COVID-19 case among Oahu firefighters.

According to HFD, the latest positive test confirmed a firefighter from the Kalihi Kai Fire Station was infected with the new coronavirus. Five firefighters also have been infected from the Hawaii Kai station and one from the Moanalua station, along with the firefighter from Kalihi.

It also was announced Sunday that a University of Hawaii football player had tested positive for COVID-19 and been put into isolation.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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