Their furloughs aren’t scheduled to begin until January, but Christmas is already going to be sorrier and sadder for many members of Hawaii’s largest public workers union.
Some were already struggling financially because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now there will be no Christmas tree at the Waimanalo home of Kehau Makaila, a 39-year-old educational assistant at Waimanalo Elementary and Intermediate School, who is bracing for a pay cut of about 9% when her furloughs begin next month.
Makaila moved back in with her parents in 2010 to help her mother, Penny, care for her father, Raymond, a 70-year-old retired Honolulu firefighter who has Parkinson’s disease.
“Their only income was my dad’s retirement,” Makaila said. “He’s progressively getting worse. … My dad falls down a lot. If you’re not watching him, he’ll walk out the door.”
The house needs plumbing and electrical work, and there are holes in the roof that need patching.
“That’s all going to have to be pushed back,” Makaila said.
Work on Penny Makaila’s 2007 Dodge Caravan already cost $2,000 this year to keep it running. And now Kehau Makaila is worried about keeping up with nearly $10,000 of her own student loans. She likely has two semesters to go to receive a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii.
As part of the cutbacks on family spending, Makaila and her parents won’t be exchanging gifts on Christmas. Even if they did, there won’t be a tree to put them under.
“And I’m a huge Christmas person,” she said.
This month Gov. David Ige announced furloughs that are scheduled to go into effect Jan. 1 in the face of COVID-19-related budget shortfalls projected at $1.4 billion in each of the next four years.
The furloughs are expected to save $300 million annually and are designed to prevent the layoffs of 4,000 state employees, although layoffs remain a possibility.
Ige said he and his Cabinet members are also taking pay cuts of 9.23% that are commensurate with the two-day-a-month furloughs that more than 10,000 state employees are expected to face. Ige said his pay cut begins Jan. 1.
Makaila’s union — the Hawaii Government Employees Association — is the largest public workers union in the state and represents nearly 30,000 workers who touch a wide range of life across the islands. HGEA members who work in “24/7” facilities, such as public nurses, are exempt from the furloughs.
HGEA members who do face furloughs include those who work in the Department of Agriculture cracking down on invasive species; those tracking people exposed to COVID-19 at the Department of Health; and workers who process claims for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Medicaid.
HGEA is united with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, University of Hawaii Professional Assembly and United Public Workers union in challenging the furloughs and have vowed to mount a court fight.
But even before taking her first furlough day, HGEA members such as Leimomi Fernandes, 60, already have been drastically cutting back on spending as the fallout from the pandemic settled in.
Her husband, whose office closed as a result of the pandemic, has not gotten a paycheck since March 20. Her daughter also lost her job as a supervisor and server at the Waikiki IHOP.
As a result, Fernandes’ 9-year-old granddaughter had to leave St. Patrick School and enroll at Royal Elementary.
“She’s quieter,” Fernandes said. “She’s not like before.”
Christmas in years past always meant “big trees, all the decorations, all the lights,” Fernandes said. “The wreath — we’re not even doing that this year.”
And there used to be lots of gifts for the granddaughter — “unicorns,” Fernandes said. “Lots of unicorns.”
This year, she said, “we’re not buying gifts. We’re cutting Christmas out totally.”
But Fernandes did help her daughter buy a Christmas tree for her apartment so her granddaughter will have some semblance of Christmas.
“She understood it was a serious situation and we were making changes,” Fernandes said. “We’re living paycheck to paycheck, and we’re all nervous what’s going to happen.”
At the same time, Fernandes worries about people who have it worse off.
“Our people in Hawaii are in food bank lines, and our children are going hungry,” she said. “A lot of people are stressed.”
Fernandes works on procurement and contracts for the state Department of Health’s developmental disabilities division. Among all of her other concerns, Fernandes also worries what furloughs will mean for the thousands of clients — known as “participants” — who receive services through Department of Health vendors that Fernandes deals with.
The services allow people with developmental and intellectual disabilities to “live independently, have residency, get employed and have healthy relationships,” Fernandes said.
“We are the voice for the participants,” she said.
In Wailuku on Maui, Helena Brown, a 58-year-old educational assistant at Baldwin High School, also plans a muted Christmas.
Her husband already took a 30% pay cut from his job supplying restaurants and hotels but now works seven days a week trying to help his clients adjust to their own loss of business, Brown said.
“He’s trying to help them,” Brown said. “He has less pay, and we don’t even see each other. … I haven’t done any Christmas shopping at all. He said, ‘Don’t buy me anything. I’m not buying you anything.’ This is the least festive I’ve ever been. It’s kind of sad.”
Brown was hoping to fly to Michigan to see her 2-year-old granddaughter for the first time. But with COVID-19 and a lack of income, a trip is not going to happen.
“It makes me real sad because I want to spoil her,” Brown said.
Brown also can’t afford to send money to help her 78-year-old mother stay in her home in Ohio because of her mother’s own financial struggles.
“She’s like, ‘Kids shouldn’t take care of their parents,’” Brown said. “But family is family.”
Brown’s dryer broke. A backyard shed was damaged and needs $4,000 in repairs that Brown can’t afford. And her daughter’s Volkswagen Tiguan, which Brown uses while her daughter is deployed with the Army, needs a new battery and likely a starter motor.
“It’s going to have to wait,” Brown said.
Brown already feels like she’s “using credit cards more than I should.”
Like her fellow HGEA members, Brown also worries about the people she works for, in her case the students at Baldwin High School.
With furloughs, Brown said, “You’re teaching students that they’re not important. If we don’t value education, then why should they? … It’s just a really, really, really sad situation.”