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On Hawaii island, the maintenance crews helping to keep the roads and highways open amid the COVID-19 crisis are getting nervous.
“Everyone’s kind of looking at me like, what are we going to do?” Kepa Kekaualua, a state Highways Division maintenance supervisor, said in an interview this week.
He and the Big Island workers he supervises are among the numerous public employees who’ve been deemed essential to stay on the job. Unlike others, they can’t work from home to reduce their chances of COVID-19 infections and help slow the virus’ spread.
Several dozen or so employees have expressed concerns to Kekaualua about the risks of working in the field as Hawaii’s number of confirmed cases grows, he said.
“We feel it does warrant temporary hazard pay,” Kekaualua added. “One of the side effects of the virus is death.”
That hazard pay might equal about 25% of those workers’ daily rate, according to Kekaualua.
Statewide, Hawaii’s powerful public sector unions are pushing for Gov. David Ige and various public agencies to agree to that hazard pay.
They’re also raising other concerns regarding public workers’ safety in the time of coronavirus.
The largest of those unions, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, says it has started filing for temporary hazard pay across all government jurisdictions in Hawaii.
The union has gotten numerous inquiries concerning hazard pay since the crisis started, HGEA President Randy Perreira said in a recent video filmed for its 43,000 members.
Filing for that pay is a “painstaking process” because union officials have to go department by department, Perreira told members.
“We have received some denials and expect that other departments may initially deny the request,” Perreira added in a statement to Civil Beat. “HGEA will file grievances in every instance where there is a denial. We hope to address this issue over time with the employers and reach an agreement.”
Cindy McMillan, Ige’s communications director, said that the state’s Department of Human Resources Development is aware of the unions’ hazard pay requests.
The human resources department, she said, is asking for the unions to go through the processes established in their collective bargaining to seek that pay.
The state’s departments would then examine the actual tasks of those individuals and whether they warrant hazard pay, which is the standard operating procedure, McMillan said.
She added, however, that the collective bargaining procedures in place are fairly rigid and that they may not be conducive to resolving the workers’ concerns in the growing pandemic.
“It’s very clear that this is a disruptive event, like none we’ve ever seen,” she added.
Meanwhile, Kekaualua, an HGEA member, raised his concerns in emails to state Department of Transportation officials last week. When he didn’t hear back from them by the end of the week, he took his plea directly to Ige.
“We are scared, frightened and looking for direction as State of Hawaii employees. It has now come to the point where we are having to choose between our ohana and our jobs,” Kekaualua wrote to Ige.
He asked the governor to consider temporary hazard pay. He also asked Ige to consider giving state workers who can’t do their work from home the option of staying home on administrative pay.
Those workers could be placed on stand-by to return in case of an emergency, Kekaualua suggested.
The state’s public sector unions also criticized Ige last week over what they perceived to be a lack of communication during the COVID-19 crisis to the employees they represent.
“We are gravely concerned about the lack of communication to employees about the plan(s) being put into place to address the COVID-19 situation,” the leaders of six public sector unions, including Perreira, wrote in a letter Monday to Ige.
They pointed to inconsistencies in how the state’s coronavirus policies have been implemented so far across different agencies.
“It is further apparent to us that the public messages being shared by each chief executive is not aligned with the reality being faced by the public workforce,” the letter added.
Leaders with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, United Public Workers and Hawaii Firefighters Association all joined HGEA in signing the letter to Ige.
“We wanted to be part of the solution to communications problems, but that was impossible when sometimes we found out about major developments impacting our members from news conferences, the news media or from social media feeds of state and county departments,” HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck said in a statement to Civil Beat.
Further, HSTA saw some principals direct their teachers to report to school buildings for meetings over spring break even though the union had agreed with the Department of Education that those teachers wouldn’t have to attend in person, Holck said.
“It was like a bad game of telephone, when the communication gets garbled down the line,” he added.
McMillan, Ige’s communications director, acknowledged that “we do need to do a better job of communicating with the employees.”
“We’re working on that,” McMillan said Thursday. “It’s difficult for us because things are moving at such a rapid pace that sometimes we can’t get out in front of it.”
It’s still not clear how many public employees in Hawaii have been deemed essential amid the state and county orders for residents to stay home.
Ryker Wada, director of the Hawaii Department of Human Resources Development, told a panel of state senators earlier this week that his department plans to gather that data from each department this week.
There’s some 73,000 employees just on the state level — a total that includes teachers and hospital workers, according to McMillan. Some 15,000 of those employees work in the state’s executive branch, she added.
Ige instructed each department to divide their employees into three categories: essential staff that must come into work, non-essential staff that can work from home and non-essential staff who can’t work from home so they have been told to stay at home while they collect paychecks.
The Senate’s special committee on COVID-19 pressed Wada for more than half an hour on why that data hasn’t been collected yet. It had asked for that information as well as employees transferring to different departments more than three weeks ago.
Part of the issue, McMillan said Thursday, was that individual departments are still putting together their plan to ensure they can provide essential services amid the crisis. They’re making sure they have their employees categorized correctly.
Figures on how many employees fall into each category should be ready early next week, she added.
On Tuesday, the senators were interested in how many state employees could be shuffled to cover departments in need of extra workers, such as the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, which is struggling under the load of unemployment claims filed in the state.
Wada said his department is working on identifying employees that fall into the third group of workers — those that can’t work now — to be moved around to help a different department.
In order to do that, Ige would need to suspend Hawaii’s collective bargaining law. That’s something he can do with his emergency powers, but hasn’t yet, according to Wada.
Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.
Read the public sector unions’ March 30 letter to Ige here:
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