A drop in visitor arrivals to Hawaii due to the spread of the delta variant and COVID-19 containment measures is creating a new round of layoffs, furloughs and reduced hours in the tourism sector just as the Federal unemployment assistance ends.
Hawaii saw a small spike in travelers for the Labor Day holiday, but not as much as expected before Governor David Ige asked visitors not to come to Hawaii until October. Since that announcement, travel here has plummeted.
And the situation is only expected to get worse next week when Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi’s Safe Access O’ahu goes into effect and Maui Mayor Mike Victorino institutes a sanitary pass. Both programs will make it harder for unvaccinated visitors who come to Hawaii with a pretest exemption to patronize certain businesses.
The slowdown is good news for residents who fear that state health care resources may not be sufficient to handle rising COVID-19 cases. However, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for Hawaii’s economy.
Two programs – one that provides unemployment assistance to self-employed and gig workers, the other to those unemployed for more than six months – expire today.
An additional 2.1 million people nationwide will lose an additional $300 a week federal unemployment benefit, which also expires today. These beneficiaries will, however, continue to receive state unemployment benefits.
Venecia’s Bryant, spokesperson for Unite Here Local 5, the union that represents workers at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, said the property has laid off 25 maintenance workers and returned 150 of its 600 housekeepers to custodial status.
De Venecia said about 68% of the 9,000 statewide hospitality workers that Local 5 represented before the pandemic returned to work last week. But a lot has changed since Ige called for a slowdown in tourism.
De Venecia said at least one other major hotel employer has told union members that post-Labor Day occupancy is expected to drop below 60%. This forces the union to prepare for the possibility of more of its workforce experiencing reduced hours or layoffs and additional furloughs.
“We’re seeing cancellations, for example, and it’s also when high season is over, so the occupancy isn’t there,” de Venecia said. “This is a very difficult time for our members. They face the same furloughs and other issues, but without the safety nets.
Cutting unemployment checks will abruptly wipe out a vital source of income for many Hawaii residents.
Mary Taboniar went 15 months without pay, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. A housekeeper at the Hilton Hawaiian Village resort, the single mother of two saw her income completely wiped out as the virus devastated the hospitality industry.
For more than a year, Taboniar was entirely dependent on increased unemployment benefits and a network of local food banks to feed his family. Even this summer, as the vaccine rollout settled in and tourists began to travel again, his work was slow to return, peaking at 11 days in August – around half of his pre-pandemic workload. .
Taboniar is one of millions of Americans for whom Labor Day 2021 represents a perilous crossroads. As of today, an estimated 8.9 million people will lose all of their benefits. A federal moratorium on evictions has already expired.
For Taboniar, 43, that means his jobless benefits will disappear completely – even if his working hours disappear again.
“It really scares me,” she said. “How can I pay rent if I don’t have unemployment and my job isn’t back?”
She plans to apply for the newly expanded SNAP assistance program, better known as food stamps, but doubts it will be enough to make up the difference. “I just cling to anything,” she said.
President Joe Biden’s administration believes the U.S. economy is strong enough not to be rattled by evictions or lower unemployment benefits. Officials argue that other elements of the safety net, like the child tax credit and the SNAP program (which Biden permanently beefed up earlier this summer) are enough to smooth things over. On Friday, a White House spokesman said there were no plans to reassess the end of unemployment benefits.
Hawaii’s tourism industry also operates without a safety net. The American Hotel and Lodging Association, based in Washington, D.C., believes government-issued travel bans and restrictions have wiped out 10 years of job growth. AHLA continues to push for targeted assistance for the industry, which so far has not received direct coronavirus-related assistance.
Keith Vieira, director of KV & Associates, Hospitality Consulting, said it’s likely more job cuts are in store in Hawaii.
“Three Hawaiian wholesalers told me they saw the highest Hawaii cancellation rate in their history in the past five days,” Vieira said. “There are no positive trends at the moment.”
Toni Marie Davis, executive director of the Activities & Attractions Association of Hawaii, said she has taken a call after a cancellation call since Ige’s announcement, and members are reporting significant losses.
“Activities and attractions across the state are seeing more cancellations than reservations,” Davis said. “Immediate business is dead.”
Davis said one of his boat operator’s members told him that their planned trips had dropped more than 50% since Ige asked for a break.
“They’re probably going to make layoffs,” she said. “I’ve heard of little moms and pops taking six-figure losses.”
Jerry Gibson, president of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance, said the group met with Ige on Friday to pledge support and share the industry’s position.
“I believe in Hawaii, and with everyone’s help and effort, we’re going to get back on the horse and start riding it,” Gibson said. “We have to do a good job for the economy and for the people here who have jobs and obviously have to support their families.”
Gibson said Hawaii hotels are experiencing declines in business related to the surge of the delta variant of COVID-19 and Ige’s demand for a travel break, which have compounded the seasonal mildness.
“We’re about 25% to 35% plus seasonality,” he said. “It is possible, with the percentage declines that I have described, that some people are not working full time. We will staff the company.
Gibson said the lack of groups, cruise ships and international businesses is also hampering the recovery of Hawaii’s hotel sector.
Duke Ah Moo, Hilton’s vice president and chief commercial officer for Hawaii and French Polynesia, said: “We are all seeing the impact on our properties resulting from the surge in COVID cases and with the governor urging against all unintended travel. essential until October.
“We are committed to working with the visitor industry and the Hawaiian community to address this current crisis and keep our community and visitors safe,” said Ah Moo.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.