Every weekday for 22 years, Emie Cabanilla woke up early to catch the bus from her home in Kalihi to the Ilikai Hotel where she worked as a housekeeper.

The commute involved three buses, two transfers and nearly an hour and a half each way. Her job wasn’t easy: scrubbing floors and cleaning sheets as she made up as many as seven rooms each day.

But now, the 57-year-old Cabanilla misses her work.

She is one of hundreds of Hawaii hospitality workers who have been reduced down to on-call schedules or who have lost their jobs altogether in recent years. Unite Here Local 5, a union made up of more than 10,000 hospitality and health care workers in Hawaii, attributes many of the job losses to the conversion of full-service hotel rooms into condos and time shares.

The conversions are part of a national trend in the hospitality industry because time shares and condos are in greater demand and cheaper to maintain than full-service hotel units.

While the conversions might make sense economically for the industry, they are hurting hospitality workers, particularly members of Hawaii’s Filipino community who fill more service jobs in the state than any other ethnic group.

Concern about the conversions has grown as policymakers grapple with what, if anything, they can do to stem the job loss. A Honolulu City Council committee is planning to take up a measure on Tuesday that aims to protect such jobs. Bill 16 would require companies to apply for a permit before transforming more than 20 percent of their hotel rooms to condo or time share units.

The city Department of Planning and Permitting and representatives of Hawaii’s visitors industry have criticized the proposal as ambiguous, unnecessary and too restrictive.

Still, more than 5,000 people have signed a petition in support of the legislation, including members of groups like the National Federation of Filipino American Associations and the Filipino American Citizens League.

Their advocacy is a sign of broadening political engagement by Hawaii’s Filipino community, which has in recent years became the state’s single largest Asian ethnic group, with 14 percent of the state’s population.

Job Losses Sharpen Political Advocacy

The conversion of hotels into condos or time shares in Hawaii has been going on for decades, but the trend has picked up steam in recent years as it has become more expensive to operate full-service hotels and the demand for condos and time shares has increased.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism doesn’t keep track of the number of rooms that have been converted, the hotels that have engaged in that process or the number of hospitality jobs that have been lost.

But according to Unite Here Local 5, more than 900 union workers at Hawaii hotels lost their jobs between December 2005 and January 2012, in part because of the conversions.

The conversions were already transforming the visitors industry before then. A 2005 analysis by HVS International San Francisco, a hospitality industry research and consulting company, found that hundreds of Hawaii hotel rooms had already been converted into condos or time shares in the first part of the decade.

According to the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the conversions have contributed to the shrinking inventory of hotel rooms in Waikiki, which now has about 28,000 rooms — or 4,000 fewer units than at its peak in 2001.

Unite Here Local 5 representatives consider the Ilikai Hotel as the poster child for the trend. According to Honolulu Magazine, the building was originally built for apartments but has, since the 1960s, operated as part-condo, part-hotel. Its current owner, iStar Financial, took over the Ilikai Hotel in 2009, excluding 123 units in the Ilikai Tower that belong to Wyndham Vacation Ownership and 353 rooms that make up what is now the Modern Hotel.

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Emie Cabanilla, a housekeeper at the Ilikai Hotel, hasn’t worked since January, when she was switched to an on-call schedule.

iStar Financial now operates about 200 rooms in the Ilikai Hotel and said that it is committed to working with Unite Here Local 5 as it renovates units on its second floor to sell to individual owners.

But the union contends that the decreasing number of hotel units has, over time, led to the loss of about 500 jobs at the Ilikai Hotel. (That number doesn’t take into account unionized labor added with the opening of the Modern Hotel.)

Many members of Hawaii’s Filipino community are understandably sensitive about hotel conversions. While they are by no means the only group affected by the conversions, their large representation in the hospitality industry has made them particularly vulnerable to the job losses and instability.

According to the American Community Survey, more than 50,000 Hawaii people who say they are at least part Filipino work in service occupations, which includes but isn’t limited to jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industries. The next largest ethnic group in service jobs is made up of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, at 34,000 residents.

The disproportionate impact of the conversions has led some members of the Filipino community to call for the City Council to pass Bill 16.

As a small business owner and a registered Republican, Christopher Wong might seem like an unlikely supporter of the bill.

But he is also president of the neighborhood board in Kalihi, a predominantly Filipino neighborhood on the outskirts of urban Honolulu that’s home to many immigrants and blue-collar workers.

Wong said he was conflicted about Bill 16 because he realized that in many ways, converting hotel units into condos or time shares makes economic sense.

He is also part Filipino and has relatives in the hotel industry. During a neighborhood board meeting earlier this year, he recalled memories of his great-aunt Nana, who worked as a housekeeper in the hospitality industry for decades.

That personal link made him realize the importance of hotel jobs for many Filipinos and the significance of Bill 16.

“I wouldn’t have voted to support it so strongly if I wasn’t Filipino and my Nana didn’t have that job,” he said.

Other Filipino community leaders say they’ve seen how job losses can devastate families faced with Hawaii’s high cost of living, especially since many help support relatives in Hawaii and the Philippines.

Charlene Cuaresma, the former president of the Filipino Coalition for Solidarity who works at the University of Hawaii to increase minority representation in academia, said hotel conversions have ripple effects that ultimately hurt some Filipino students who are pursing higher education degrees.

“Many of the hotel workers are trying to send their children to college and when they lose their jobs and their hours get cut, their income is reduced substantially,” Cuaresma said. “I’ve had to counsel students who have had to drop out of school because their parents can no longer support them.”

For Cuaresma, the issue of hotel conversions is another chapter in Hawaii’s labor movement that started when she was a child growing up in a camp for workers on Oahu’s once-booming sugar plantations. Back then, Filipino workers went on strike to protest working conditions.

Now, she sees her work at the Filipino Coalition for Solidarity as continuing that struggle: speaking up for service workers who don’t necessarily have the time or strategic communications skills to advocate for themselves and their families.

Business and Politics

Despite the efforts of groups like Cuaresma’s and the strong backing of Unite Here Local 5, it’s unclear how far Bill 16 will go.

When the City Council committee on economic development took up the bill in March, it deferred the measure. At the time, committee chairwoman Carol Fukunaga said that lawmakers appreciated the concerns of the hotel workers but that the bill had to be reworked before it could move forward.

The bill faced resistance from the city Department of Planning and Permitting, which testified that the measure’s ambiguous language was problematic. Representatives from the hotel industry also protested the proposed regulations.

“Discouraging or prohibiting the conversion of hotels to time shares would be highly detrimental to the visitor industry,” testified Gary Slovin and Mihoko Ito, lobbyists on behalf of Wyndham Vacation Ownership. “It is crucial to allow the industry flexibility to meet the changing demands of the market and economy.”

Henry Perez from the American Resort Development Association pointed out that hotel owners only engage in conversions when it makes sense financially, which tends to be when the rooms are dilapidated and need to be renovated.

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The Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel in Waikiki is adding time shares, following a trend in the hospitality industry away from full-service hotel units.

Another critic of the bill is local economist Paul Brewbaker, who contended that the conversions are generally good for Hawaii’s economy and that any job losses would likely be mitigated by new jobs elsewhere. He described the evolution of the hospitality industry as having its winners and losers.

“There’s plenty of data to show that what’s going on here is beneficial to everyone else except possibly, hypothetically, the housekeeper,” he said. He pointed to higher utilization rates for condos and time shares, and their greater resilience than hotels during economic downturns.

“If this was a bad thing, why would people be doing it?” he said. “Everybody’s making money, is my point.”

With opposition from both the city and part of the business community, the bill faces a tough path forward.

But local political analysts say that the growing weight of the Filipino community in Hawaii politics means that council members shouldn’t take their concerns lightly.

“If I were a councilman and I had a lot of Filipinos in my district and I saw this petition, I would be paying attention,” said John Hart, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University. “And if not, I would be facing some political consequences.”

This is not the first time that the issue has come up. The City Council considered a similar bill in 2005 that failed to pass.

But Professor Neal Milner from the University of Hawaii said that passions around conversions have intensified even as the Filipino community has grown.

“You have an intense minority with a history of organization on union-related issues that makes them a pretty formidable force,” Milner said. “They’re not suddenly coming out of the woodwork as a newly consciously raised group.”

But both Milner and Hart noted that it will be hard for City Council members to go against the will of companies that are central to Hawaii’s visitors industry.

“You have developers who give money and you have Filipinos who vote, so the City Council is going to have to make up their minds on this one because they’re not going to keep both of them happy,” Hart said.

Workers Face Uncertainty

Politics aside, the hotel conversions are generating fear among some Filipinos who are concerned that their jobs or those of their family members might disappear.

Wong, from the Kalihi Neighborhood Board, said he is often approached by hotel workers at Kamehameha Shopping Center who urge him to do something to stop the hotel conversions.

Dorotea Coloma, a housekeeper at Hyatt Regency Hotel and a member of Unite Here Local 5, said that she and many of her coworkers worry about what will happen if more companies begin the conversion process. While the 61-year-old Coloma said she is close enough to retirement that she could handle being laid off, she is concerned that there won’t be enough work available for the younger generation.

But even if Bill 16 succeeds, it might be too little too late for people like Cabanilla, who has spent the past four months waiting to be called in to work at the Ilikai Hotel and to hear back about her job applications. In the past, Cabanilla would send part of her paycheck to her family in the Philippines. Instead, every Friday she now collects an unemployment check from the state that is barely enough to cover her rent and bills.

Cabanilla said that despite the passing months, she is still hopeful that she’ll be called in to work again. She isn’t sure what she’ll do if that doesn’t happen.

“I want to find a job,” Cabanilla said. “Instead of collecting my unemployment, I’d rather work.”

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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