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Editorial: Bring back more hotel workers

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Last summer, following months of tourism lockdown, Unite Here Local 5, which represents some 12,000 hospitality, health care and food service workers, called for stepped-up workforce protections to guard against COVID-19 as Hawaii framed a strategy for restarting its stalled economic engine.

Occupancy at isle hotels had nearly doubled in June 2020 to about 16% from a coronavirus-related low of 8.4% in April, when a majority of the union’s members were unemployed. Thanks to travel demand from North American markets bolstering Hawaii’s travel industry, June 2021’s hotel occupancy approached robust prepandemic levels, even with low international visitor counts.

The welcome upshot is that while not fully recovered, Hawaii’s tourism industry is continuing to rebound, with mask-wearing and other public health directives still rightly in place. A concerning fallout, however, is that hotel employment levels are lagging behind occupancy gains.

For many residents, tourism levels that meet, or even come close to exceeding, capacity in various lodging types are supported — or, at least, tolerated — because they create jobs that, in turn, help float the kamaaina economy’s boat. Moreover, for decades the symbiotic relationship that hotels and other tourism-related accommodations have with Hawaii has been bolstered by a steady flow of state dollars dedicated to marketing the islands as a go-to travel destination.

Statewide, June 2021 hotel occupancy surged to 77% — just 7 percentage points below June 2019 when occupancy topped 84%. But as of mid-July, only 62% of members in Local 5 — Hawaii’s largest hospitality workers union — had returned to the jobs they held before the virus shut down travel here. As hotels adjust to the still-fluid “new normal,” they owe Hawaii a commitment to return staffing to more reasonable levels.

According to recent federal data, a large portion of job cuts in the nation’s lodging industry during the pandemic have yet to be fully recovered. While resort-centered markets are reportedly faring better than those dependent on business and convention travel, Hawaii’s economic health depends on both sorts.

Here and elsewhere, some hotels appear to be seeking to make permanent changes put in place during the height of the pandemic, such as offering daily housecleaning only upon request, and automated or contactless check-in. Implementing these changes and others hold potential to make operations more efficient — and could result in reduced costs for guests. But they also prompt big-picture questions, such as: “At what cost to Hawaii?”

As recently as May 2020, the state’s unemployment rate stood at a record 21.9%, due in large part to flat-lining tourism. While it’s encouraging that in June 2021 Hawaii’s jobless rate dropped to a 15-month low of 7.7%, it still trailed the U.S. rate, 5.9%.

On Friday, Local 5 members rallied outside of The Modern Honolulu and Ilikai Hotel to protest business decisions to make room cleaning optional instead of the daily services that were provided before the pandemic. While cuts in labor cost may help hotels recoup financial losses touched off by COVID-19, union members contend that housekeepers and other hotel employees are now shouldering larger workloads and contending with complaints from caught-off-guard guests.

According to Hawaii Tourism Authority figures, June’s statewide average daily room rate for hotels was $320 — and the islands led all U.S. markets during the first half of 2021, followed by Miami and New York City. Corporate responsibility tied to commanding high rates must include gracious aloha for guests, yes — but also an ongoing push to sustain viable employment levels, including training for re-imagined hotel jobs, for Hawaii residents.

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