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For Andrea Grabow, March has been a bleak month. A server at the Kai Market Restaurant at the landmark Sheraton Waikiki, Grabrow normally worked five days a week, for $11 an hour, plus tips.
Now, as the coronavirus has sent visitors packing and kept more at home, Grabrow has seen her work dwindle to nothing: not a single shift for the month of March.
“I feel like we’re just floating and waiting for these leaders to figure it out and come up with the plan,” she said.
It’s quickly become clear Grabow is one of thousands – perhaps eventually tens of thousands – of workers in Hawaii’s tourism industry that may wind up jobless as the impact of coronavirus sends shocks through Hawaii’s economy.
Gov. David Ige sent another shock through the industry on Tuesday, when he rolled up Hawaii’s welcome mat and officially asked tourists to stay away for at least 30 days. He also ordered the closure of all bars and nightclubs and will allow restaurants to serve only take-out food.
“Our focus at this time is the health of our community,” Ige said at a press conference. “We are asking our visitors to reschedule their trips to the islands because we want to focus on what’s important, which is the health and safety of our community.”
The accommodation and food service sector is Hawaii’s largest private employer, providing approximately 113,000 jobs in the fourth quarter of 2019, according to labor data published by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization. That amounted to more than 17% of all non-farm jobs, and didn’t count thousands of additional retail jobs catering to tourists.
Even before Ige’s announcement Tuesday, local restaurants such as Superette, Town and Mud Hen Water restaurants in Kaimuki were announcing temporary closures.
Clarification: Superette later announced that it would offer takeout meals to customers.
The question now is how deep and lasting all of this will be: the government policies, as well as the layoffs and reductions.
Kekoa McClellan, the Hawaii spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said the impacts from the virus eventually could amount to 45,500 lost hospitality jobs.
“This is going to hurt big time,” he said.
Hotel occupancies, which have hovered in the mid-80% range for Oahu, have already dropped, he said.
“Last week, a hotel in Waikiki was lucky if they were at 50%,” he said. “This week, it’s worse.”
The immediate impact was acute even before Ige’s announcement, said Bryant de Venecia, a spokesman for Unite HERE Local 5, the union that represents about 11,000 hospitality and health care workers.
Typically, the union sees one or two employees every couple of weeks seeking help applying for unemployment benefits. But since early March, he said, the average is at least 30 people per day.
De Venecia says the union talked to employers about extending medical coverage and re-assigning workers to sanitation and cleaning jobs so that they can continue to work.
“It is a recession, a really bad one. The question is, ‘How long?’” — Carl Bonham, University of Hawaii economist
Some companies are laying off entire departments and cutting hours for workers in other divisions. De Venecia said his biggest concern is the potential for thousands to be out of work without medical coverage, which could discourage sick people from going to the doctor and enable the spread of the virus.
“We’re really pushing our hotel and health care employers to ally with us to push our lawmakers to do something in terms of expanding public benefits, making sure unemployment will be ready … and explore freezing evictions and foreclosures,” he said. “We don’t have any other choice but to really help each other.”
To Carl Bonham, a UH economics professor who is director of the university’s research organization, there’s no doubt the impact on the economy is severe. Before Ige’s announcement late Tuesday, Bonham said he was forecasting a decline of approximately 9,300 jobs in the accommodations and food service sector from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2020.
“It is a recession, a really bad one,” he said.
“The question is, ‘How long?’ Is this for two quarters, and then they come back? Hopefully that’s the worst we see.”
For hospitality workers already living paycheck to paycheck, or with little financial cushion, even two quarters could be a major blow, especially as the impacts of coronavirus sweep through other sectors.
Grabow is a case in point. With two children, ages 18 and 4, she has a family to feed and $1,250 in rent per month.
She’s burning through her savings, including her daughter’s college fund. She estimates that she only has about three weeks of savings left and is looking for another job, but it feels like no one is hiring.
And it’s not just her facing a bleak job market. Grabow’s partner lost two of his three jobs working as part of a film production crew that shoots sporting events because so many games have been cancelled.
Her biggest worry is what will happen to her health insurance. She expects to lose it in May if she can’t work until then, and it scares her that her children would be uninsured in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Don’t go out of the house, don’t touch anything, don’t breathe anybody’s air,” she tells them.
The situation is just as bad for tourism industry entrepreneurs like Chris Thompson. He and his wife own three businesses in Hawaii — a vacation rental company, a cleaning company and a real estate photography business.
He’s lost at least $140,000 since his business started going south earlier this month, and he expects to lay off more than a dozen staff members by Friday. The 41-year-old Hawaii Kai resident has a hard time sleeping as he tries to come up with a way to avoid layoffs. It’s painful to watch the businesses he built over the last several years collapse before his eyes.
Don’t go in-person to the unemployment office unless you have to. The state has stopped taking walk-ins to help prevent the spread of the virus.
Instead, apply for unemployment online by going to this website: uiclaims.hawaii.gov.
If you need help applying online, call your local unemployment office and schedule an appointment by phone. Click here for their phone numbers. All appointments will be conducted by phone, according to the office’s spokesman Bill Kuntsman.
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“There’s just no more money. It’s gone,” he said. He’s started to drive Lyft to pay for groceries. “There’s nobody coming and going so there’s no rooms to clean. There’s nobody to check in. Our rooms are empty.”
The big question is what to do to bail out a broad swath of the economy. Thompson says he’ll do whatever it takes to stay in business and is looking into everything from government loans to loan sharks. But the money can’t come fast enough. He wishes politicians could suspend required mortgage, rent and utility payments.
“No insurance covers this. There’s no way to prepare for this,” he said.
McClellan from American Hotel and Lodging Association said the state should consider abating the general excise or hotel taxes for hotels to help them survive. While he acknowledged other industries are suffering, McClellan notes that the hospitality industry plays an outsized role in the state’s economy.
Despite efforts to diversify, tourism has only commanded an increasingly larger economic role in Hawaii in recent years, he said.
“We’ve all been saying this isn’t going to last,” McClellan said. “Something like this always happens, and the hotels are always the first to get hurt.”
Hospitality workers who still have jobs are caught in a Catch-22. Glenda Lucelo, a housekeeper at Sheraton Waikiki, wants to continue working and earning money but is also fearful that she could contract the virus.
Lucelo, 48, has been a housekeeper for nine years, ever since she emigrated from the Philippines. Cleaning hotel rooms is a physically demanding job but she has always felt lucky to have such a reliable income with a good wage.
That is, until this month, when her hours dropped nearly in half. She’s worried about whether she and her husband – who is a hotel cleaner at the Moana Surfrider — will be able to continue to pay their nearly $2,500 mortgage if the cuts continue. But her bigger worry is whether she or her husband will get sick and accidentally transmit it to their son.
“We don’t know who is infected,” Lucelo says. “It’s scary,” she adds, choking up.
She brings her own gloves to the hotel and urges her husband to wear gloves when he handles dirty linens every day.
“My worry is how it ends, and when,” she says.
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