Three days before Safe Access O‘ahu mandates kicked in, a survey of island businesses — most of them on Oahu — found that many were already struggling to fill vacancies as Hawaii began to reopen amid a changing workforce.
Safe Access O‘ahu is designed to encourage vaccinations and curtail the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant while allowing Oahu businesses to continue operating without a shutdown, Mayor Rick Blangiardi said before the scheduled 60-day program began Sept. 13.
Safe Access O‘ahu requires customers and employees, contractors and volunteers of businesses such as restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, museums and arcades to show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative COVID-19 test result. Children under age 12 are exempt.
Heading into the fourth week, the impact on staffing at most businesses remains unclear, as businesses also face government- enforced mandates at the state and federal levels.
On Friday Gov. David Ige issued another emergency proclamation for an additional two months that extends the requirement for state and county employees to be vaccinated while restricting the size of social gatherings and requiring that masks be worn indoors, among other rules. Infractions are misdemeanors and carry maximum penalties of a year in prison and fines of $5,000.
Nationally, President Joe Biden on Sept. 9 called for businesses with more than 100 employees to require employee vaccinations. The Associated Press reported that some businesses that already have announced vaccine mandates have seen some employees who were on the fence get vaccinated, but holdouts remain.
Even before Biden’s announcement, dozens of companies including Amtrak, Microsoft, United Airlines and Disney issued ultimatums to their workers, including similar mandates to workers and customers at smaller companies in New York, San Francisco and New Orleans, according to the AP. United last week planned to fire 593 employees who initially refused to get vaccinated. United said the number of employees facing termination for refusing to get vaccinated has since dropped to 320.
Despite the barrage of mandates coming from multiple fronts, only a handful of businesses working to comply with Safe Access O‘ahu seem to be reporting frustrations with hanging onto employees who don’t want to be vaccinated and don’t think the hassle of frequent testing is worth keeping their jobs.
One of them is Lindsey Dymond, owner of four Kalapawai Markets and Cafes on Oahu.
Six of his approximately 120 employees have quit rather than be vaccinated or produce weekly negative tests, which they must undergo on their own time.
“They’d rather go to the beach,” Dymond said.
“Some left on good terms,” he said. “Others just ghosted,” meaning they never sent word or responded to queries about whether they planned to report to work.
About 50 employees are instead choosing to be tested every week.
But what’s happening at Kalapawai Markets and Cafes may not be typical of what Oahu businesses are seeing.
No one knows exactly how many Oahu business fall under the requirements of Safe Access O‘ahu, said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.
Most of the chamber’s approximately 2,000 members are on Oahu, where 1,200 to 1,300 members operate.
An anonymous Chamber of Commerce Hawaii survey of 217 members — conducted Sept. 10 of mostly Oahu businesses before Safe Access O‘ahu rules went into affect — found that 53% of respondents were still experiencing a workforce shortage, compared with 86% from a similar survey conducted in May.
Some 52% of chamber respondents said any workforce shortage they were seeing was due to a lack of candidates with necessary experience — with only 21% saying the shortage was due to vaccination and testing mandates.
The takeaways from the survey of Hawaii businesses mean that “businesses are continuing to face difficulties bringing employees back to work,” Menor-McNamara said in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “More than half of our respondents said that the reason for the shortage was due to a lack of candidates with necessary experience. At the Chamber, we offer various resources to help candidates prepare for the job market, including our one-stop website called Hawaiiishiring.com. We encourage job seekers to explore this free tool to better meet the needs of our changing job market through trainings, resume writing, internships, and more.”
Other highlights from the survey:
>> Some 46% of respondents said that the biggest challenge with Biden’s COVID-19 mandates is losing workers.
>> Most businesses — 59% — do not anticipate employees to quit because of vaccination or testing requirements under both the Safe Access O‘ahu mandates or proposed Biden rules.
>> Since the federal “plus up” unemployment benefits were to end, 74% of respondents did not see an increase in employment.
>> Some 42% of businesses say that 90% to 100% of their employees are currently vaccinated.
At Dymond’s Kalapawai Markets and Cafes, the majority of anti-vax employee holdouts have gotten vaccinated rather than endure long lines to get tested every week on their own time in order to report for their shifts, Dymond said.
“Several said the lines are too long to get tested, so they got vaccinated,” he said. “Some were thinking it was only a 60-day thing (under Safe Access O‘ahu), but with Biden, no, it’s not.”
For his four store supervisors, documenting every employees’ and customers’ vaccination and testing status represents a “nightmare” and “administrative headaches,” Dymond said.
For the few employees who refuse to comply with vaccination or testing mandates, he said, “there’s nothing I can do to change their mind. … Otherwise they can’t come to work.”
The approximately 50 who would rather get tested instead of being vaccinated “means they’ll have to be tested into perpetuity,” Dymond said.
In the meantime he suspects that plainclothes Honolulu Liquor Commission investigators continue to visit his restaurants to, at least, monitor whether diners are filling out Safe Access O‘ahu mandatory forms with personal information that would allow future contact tracers to reach out to them if an employee or customer tests positive for COVID-19.
Dymond said he has not been cited by either Honolulu police or Honolulu Liquor Commission investigators for violations of either Safe Access O‘ahu mandates or statewide emergency proclamation rules.
“On the guest side, I’ve heard from people all over the board,” Dymond said. “Before Safe Access was announced, they wrote down on their contact tracing (forms) and made it clear that they are vaccinated and can prove it, but they disagree with the principle and would not do it. On the other hand, we have a lot of guests who enjoy it. They say it’s great to be able to eat at a restaurant” where staff and employees have tested negative or are vaccinated.
Like other businesses, Dymond said he has adjusted his business model in the era of COVID-19, and now takeout food service is “through the roof.”