Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy has a history of bouncing back after major shocks. And with last week’s launch of the pre-travel testing program, our resilience is being tested yet again. This time, though, given the public health concerns tied to the shock of COVID-19 that essentially shut down the industry for seven months, recovery is expected to advance at a uniquely slow pace.
Since February, the state has lost slightly more than half of its travel-leisure jobs. Among the latest permanent layoffs, some 660 Hawaii airport workers, with HMSHost, were let go last week. While some suspended jobs in tourism and other sectors may resurface, many will not. That’s why sidelined workers should seize opportunities to explore other employment options.
There are up-and-running programs, underwritten with federal pandemic relief funds, tailored to help open doors and ease employment-related transition. Among them is the “Oahu Back to Work” initiative through which University of Hawaii community colleges are offering free job skills courses through December.
The $3 million initiative, created through a UH-Honolulu Hale partnership, aims to enroll 2,000 participants in courses linked to job fields that are seeing openings. Shifting career paths can be onerous, especially for anyone who has spent decades in now-stalled workplaces. It’s encouraging then that among those signing up, the average age is 40.
So far, there’s an enrollment of slightly more than 1,475 residents — eligibility includes adults whose employment was disrupted by COVID-19, such as through lost hours, furloughs or job loss. Among some 70 courses now in the works, health care training is generating the most interest because high demand for workers such as nurses, phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.
Clearly, there remain more slots for participants — so those eligible should take advantage of this opportunity to pivot or advance with marketable job skills.
Also, the state has allocated $10 million in CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act funds toward a two-track program connecting displaced workers, along with recent college and high school grads, with temporary jobs and career training.
One track, “Kupu Aina Corps,” offers sustainability-focused work; the other,“Aloha Connects Innovation,” provides jobs with host companies in “non-tourism- dependent emerging industries.” The program — organized by the state Department of Business, Economic Development &Tourism (DBEDT) and two nonprofits, Kupu and the Economic Development Alliance of Hawaii — also wraps up in December.
As economic recovery inches forward, it’s likely that more of these types of programs will be needed. According to DBEDT’s forecast, Hawaii will welcome 2.9 million visitors by the end of this year — a nearly 72% plunge from 2019’s yearlong count.
Even as displaced workers continue to navigate the COVID-19 new normal, the state continues to grapple with Hawaii’s high volume of unemployment benefits.
Among the latest snags, in late September, when the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations (DLIR) opened a new call center to field unemployment claim questions, its virtual phone bank was flooded with calls from claimants using computer and phone software to repeatedly redial attempts to get through to an agent.
Since then, the problem has been mitigated by disallowing robo-calls into the queue; and the center is getting an daily average of 7,000 “distinct callers.” That’s progress. But among the new challenges is an increase in people who have tapped out their 26 weeks of state-allotted unemployment benefits and are filing for the federally funded 13-week extension.
Hawaii’s necessary attempt to reshape the economy as less tourism-dependent sends us down a path that will be marked with frustrating stops and starts. Even so, it seems to be the most viable way forward — filled, hopefully, with more starts than stops.