The Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations reported 67,071 new unemployment filings for the first half of this week, bringing the March total to 82,963. The jobless claims are spread out among various sectors, but economists expect the accommodations and food service sector to be especially hard hit by the impact of the coronavirus.

In January, there were just over 650,000 non-farm jobs in Hawaii, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. The loss of nearly 80,000 jobs thus represents a loss of more than 12% of the state’s total.

The state’s figures come alongside equally dire numbers from the U.S. Department of Labor. The agency on Thursday reported a record number of claims with slightly more than 3 million new jobless claims across the nation for the week ending last Sunday. The previous high was 695,000 in October of 1982, the department reported.

The Hawaii and federal unemployment data are not exactly the same and thus can’t be compared, said William Kunstman, a spokesman for the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Still, the numbers show the order of magnitude of job losses across the U.S. and Hawaii, as broad swaths of the economy are shut down in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus.

Ala Moana Shopping Center. Sunglass Hut was temporarily closed due to Coronavirus concerns on March 18, 2020.
The Sunglass Hut at Ala Moana Shopping Center was closed due to coronavirus concerns. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Until the last few weeks, the once-thriving tourism market was a bastion of plentiful jobs in Hawaii. Now the state is seeing dramatically just how fragile that job base is when a crisis like COVID-19 hits.

On Thursday, Hawaii began imposing a new policy that will have a profoundly chilling effect on tourists: anyone coming into the state will be subject to a 14-day quarantine. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases in Hawaii topped 100 on Thursday, as private and state laboratories confirmed 11 new cases, bringing the total to 106.

Policymakers face the grim challenge of trying to protect the public without tipping the economy into a deep recession that could also produce widespread social and health problems. Congress has responded by fast-tracking a $2 trillion stimulus bill that includes relief for working people, including cash payments of up to $1,200 per person and expanded unemployment benefits, as well as money to help small businesses and large firms keep the lights on until it’s safe to return to work.

Congress’ move has given relief to the Dow Jones Industrial Average index of large companies, which has posted a three-day rally following two weeks of declines.

Still, tens of thousands of people in Hawaii remain on edge, without work in an economy that depends largely on tourists who for now are no longer welcome here. In a report published earlier this week by UHERO, economist Peter Fuleky underscored the reality facing a large part of Hawaii’s population, much of which lives paycheck to paycheck.

“With the median annual income in the industry at about $30,000, food service employees likely have limited savings and are not prepared to handle a system-wide shock to the visitor and local dining markets,” he reported.

While the anticipated federal stimulus can help, he said, many of Hawaii’s restaurant industry job losses could last for months or years.

“Short-term income supplements will not go very far in addressing this longer-term problem,” Fuleky said.

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