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30,000 Hawaii workers may have opted out of job market in July

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  • CRAIG KOJIMA / 2019

With COVID-19 cases surging and Hawaii’s economy struggling, as many as 30,000 workers could have taken themselves out of the state’s labor market last month.

“If there aren’t jobs, people will continue to drop out,” said Carl Bonham — executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, who serves on the House Select Committee on COVID-19 — at a committee meeting Monday. “You may very well see a 30,000-person drop in employment.”

Bonham said it’s difficult to make an estimate. But whatever July’s numbers turn out to be, Bonham said they’re certain to increase in the coming months as employees on the verge of retirement also pull the plug on full-time employment, such as school teachers, airline workers and others who may face the possibility of furloughs and further shutdowns.

“All of these things are coming into play,” Bonham said. “We’re seeing retirements already, teachers who will choose not to come back into the classroom. … That incentive grows if we’re talking furloughs.”

Bonham’s estimate followed an update to the state House Select Committee by U.S. Rep. Ed Case, who said he was “disgusted” and “very disappointed” in stalled congressional negotiations over whether to resume federal supplemental unemployment benefits of $600 per week that expired last month, while weekly state unemployment payments continue.

“It should never have come to this,” Case said.

The House in May voted to extend the $600 weekly payments, but a majority of Senators are insisting on cutting back the federal aid to $200 per week, Case said.

At the same time, Case said, more than 20 Senators and more than 20 House members are “dead set against any further emergency assistance.”

The negotiations represent “clear policy and clear political differences” amid a congressional and presidential election campaign season, Case said.

There does seem to be consensus on the idea of another round of individual stimulus payments of up to $1,200, Case said.

“Unemployment is where we’re all tripping on right now,” he said. “… We’re in a very high stakes negotiation.”

Whatever compromise is reached, Case said there could be an agreement between the House and Senate late this week or early next week, which would go to President Donald Trump “immediately.”

In the meantime, Case said, 90% of his constituent communications come from “people that are in need.”

Gov. David Ige simultaneously said that Hawaii’s on-going surge in COVID-19 cases could result in further restrictions if the numbers keep going up.

“We do need to see the number being contained,” Ige said during a Honolulu Star-Advertiser Spotlight Hawaii discussion via Facebook Live. “If it continues to increase during this whole week, then I’m certain that the mayors and I would be looking at further action necessary. We all know that a complete shutdown is not something that we would want to do, because of the impact on our businesses. But if the numbers continue to increase then we may have to do that.”

On Monday, Kirk Caldwell signed an order — approved by Ige — that immediately restricts indoor and outdoor social gatherings to no more than 10 people, regardless of household and living unit affiliation.

Ige said that Sept. 1 remains a goal to re-open Hawaii’s tourism industry — without requiring a 14-day quarantine planned for travelers who test negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of travel.

The date is in doubt because the on-going surge of COVID-19 cases across the country limits the availability of testing, Ige said.

“So we continue to expand the network of organizations and businesses that are willing to provide a pre-travel testing for COVID-19, and whether they would be able to get the results back in 72 hours,” he said.

Ige then told the House Select Committee on COVID-19 that it’s possible that Japanese tourists could arrive in a so-called “travel bubble” ahead of mainland visitors, depending on the availability of pre-travel testing.

“We want to bring trans-Pacific travelers as soon as it’s safe,” Ige said.

Instead, if Hawaii officials can coordinate with the “right partners in Japan … then we’re committed to doing that.”

Staff writer Andrew Gomes contributed to this report.

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