As Hawaii’s economy continues to struggle with record levels of unemployment and a shuttering of its largest industry, one fact often gets lost amid the stories of the state’s overwhelmed unemployment system and a looming tsunami of evictions: Hawaii has actually done fairly well in securing money for struggling households and small businesses.

All of that money – some $5 billion in federal stimulus aimed at keeping people on payrolls, supporting those who were laid off and helping out many more – soon will go away. And when it does, what seem like hard times now could get much worse.

Local residents stand in line to receive food at a distribution event held at the Na Kupuna Makamae Center, in Honolulu, HI, Friday, May 15, 2020. The center normally runs programs and services for seniors and since the COVID outbreak has become home for a weekly food distribution project made available by a partnership between the Pacific Gateway Center, Aloha Harvest, and Help is on the Way organizations. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Though Hawaii workers are already reeling, life could get even harder when pandemic aid programs run out of money. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

With a new round of federal aid stalled in the U.S. Senate and no signs that Gov. David Ige plans to open Hawaii to tourists, there’s nothing on the horizon to replace the money that has helped struggling families cover rent and keep food on the table.

In brief, even though Hawaii now endures severe socioeconomic strain, the worst may be yet to come.

“It’s a huge worry,” says Rep. Sylvia Luke, who closely follows Hawaii’s economy as chair the House Finance Committee.

The federal stimulus money has cushioned Hawaii from the devastating effects of a statewide stay-at-home order that is only beginning to ease and a continuing shutdown of tourism, Luke said. But it’s also hidden some underlying realities, she said.

“Right now, what’s happening with the economy is a false indicator,” she said. “It’s sort of a security blanket.”

$5 Billion For Workers And Small Firms Soon Will Be Spent

The amount of money flowing to Hawaii is enormous. In a press release issued last week, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz pegs the total at more than $7 billion. Of that, Schatz said in a news release, some $2 billion has gone to a variety of institutions: hospitalsCOVID-19 testing and contact tracingschoolspublic transportation, state and county governments and other Hawaii organizations and programs.

But the bulk has gone to individuals and small businesses. Hawaii exceeded initial predictions when it landed just short of $2.5 billion in forgivable loans for small firms under the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program.

The loans amount to grants that don’t need to be paid back for companies that use at least 75% to pay workers by the end of June, so in theory that means about $1.9 billion for working people — enough to cover about 62% of eligible payrolls by some estimates.

There’s also money sent directly to people. The U.S. Treasury doled out checks of $1,200 for individuals who met certain income thresholds, regardless of whether they were working, plus another $500 per child. And the feds have boosted state unemployment claims with an extra $600 per week. These sources added up to another $2.4 billion, Schatz said.

While 60,000 to 70,000 people haven’t been able to make it through Hawaii’s overburdened unemployment system to receive payments, overall the money has been a savior for the local economy. In fact, for many unemployed people, the $600 per week extra means higher income than they had when working. Luke said the scale tips at incomes of around $50,000 annually; people earning that amount before now get more from unemployment insurance.

Viewed another way, $5 billion of outside cash steered to working families is more than three times Hawaii’s monthly tourist revenue before the crisis, when visitors spent about $1.5 billion per month.

The problem is that the $5 billion will all be used up by the end of July. The paycheck protection money is supposed to be used by June 30, and most people will quit getting the extra $600 a week in unemployment insurance by July 31.

This is what worries economy-watchers like Luke. “Then what happens at that point?” she asked.

Reopening Tourism Soon Is The Key

In the best case, Hawaii’s slowly opening economy will have rebounded enough by the end of July that many of those now unemployed will have work again. The question is, how many?

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization estimates that as of April, when the state’s economy effectively shut down, Hawaii had lost 220,000 jobs, about 30% of the labor force. More than half were the direct results of the halt in tourism, the rest due to the stay-at-home order.

One scenario published by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization foresaw small business loans causing employment to bounce back slightly, drop after the money was spent, then start to rise steadily by August — if tourism opens again in July, which now seems unlikely. UHERO

UHERO recently published a chart illustrating the decline in jobs and how the SBA loans could help boost employment until tourism picked up again. The picture wasn’t great. UHERO predicted the PPP loans would lift employment through June, although some jobs would drop again at the end of the month before employment started rising again.

But that sobering scenario assumed Hawaii would reopen to tourists in July. And that doesn’t seem likely.

A two-week quarantine for people arriving in Hawaii has effectively stopped the spread of the virus in the islands. But it also has effectively shut down tourism. Hawaii now faces a grim choice: to open up to tourists and invite the virus back into the state or to remain cut off and face the economic cliff.

On Thursday, Ige said he would extend a two-week travel quarantine for all people arriving in Hawaii past June 30. Although Ige didn’t say how long past June 30, there are no signs the administration is developing a plan to reopen.

This is a major problem, said Carl Bonham, UHERO’s executive director. Without tourists supporting jobs, many firms that rehired people using PPP money might have to lay them off again, he said. And this time, people won’t have the extra $600 per week in unemployment insurance money.

“Come the end of June,” Bonham said, “if the local economy is only slowly ramping up, the question is, will all those businesses have adequate revenues to keep all those employees they brought back?”

The key is tourism, which previously provided about one of six jobs statewide.

“If we don’t get tourists flowing safely, it’s going to be bad,” he said.

GOP Senators Want To Cut Unemployment Boost

By late summer, unemployed people might have to tighten their belts even more. Although the U.S. House passed a new, $3 trillion stimulus bill, it has stalled in the Senate. And the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the Republican-controlled chamber won’t extend the unemployment insurance boost.

If McConnell’s view prevails, after July 31 unemployed people lucky enough to have made it through Hawaii’s system will have to live on $2,400 less per month than they’ve been getting.

Schatz was not available for comment, but in his news release he said he’s introduced legislation to create a new federal jobs program to help hire and train up to 1.5 million recently unemployed people for new jobs in public health, and called for additional flexible funding for state and county governments and new federal dollars for social services nonprofits.

How much all of this will help Hawaii’s economy isn’t clear. But one thing seems certain to UHERO’s Bonham: restarting tourism later will make it even harder to recover.

“This is really a heavy lift,” he said. “This is going to be very hard.”

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