Celia Cabal Arcilla, 53, is a telephone operator at the Sheraton Maui. Since moving to Hawaii about 30 years ago, she sends money every two weeks to her family in the Philippines.

But since March 22, Arcilla has been out of work. Like thousands of other Hawaii hospitality workers, she lost her job in the COVID-19 pandemic closures. But the shutdown of Hawaii’s tourism industry means she’s suddenly unable to help her family when they need it most.

“It’s hard knowing that they don’t know where to get their next meal,” Arcilla says.

Customers wait outside PNB Global Remittance located on Fort Street Mall.
Even sending and receiving remittances has become more difficult in the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Hawaii has flattened the curve of COVID-19 infections, at least temporarily. But the bigger impact of the pandemic here has been economic: more than 230,000 people have filed for unemployment and the state’s unemployment rate jumped from around 2% to 22%.

While many are struggling with the mental and emotional burden of worrying about how they’ll make ends meet, some Hawaii immigrants face an additional strain: wrestling with the emotional toll of not being able to provide for their families abroad.

Sending money to support family abroad is common for immigrants worldwide. Remittances make up 40% of Tonga’s gross domestic product and about 18% of Samoa’s. In the Philippines, remittances make up about 10% of the country’s GDP, the equivalent of about $30 billion.

Portrait of Judith Ramirez at her Salt Lake residence.
Judith Ramirez, a resident of Salt Lake, wants to go back to work so that she can send more money back home to the Philippines. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

But because of the pandemic, the World Bank expects global remittances to fall 20%, “the sharpest decline in recent history.” Remittances to the Philippines are expected to fall about 13%.

In Hawaii, many of the workers affected are Filipino employees in the hospitality industry. Filipinos make up most of the membership of Unite Here Local 5, Hawaii’s union for hotel workers. More than 9,000 hotel workers in the Local 5 union have been furloughed or laid off as a result of the coronavirus closures, according to union spokesman Bryant de Venecia.

“The impact for Filipino families who are working in the tourism industry is not just them, it’s also their families in the Philippines who have come to depend on them,” says Jon Okamura, a University of Hawaii ethnic studies professor. “It’s just another dimension to the unemployment problem.”

More Difficult To Send Money

Prior to the pandemic, Arcilla regularly sent money to her sister, a stay-at-home mom in the Philippines. She paid for school for her nieces and would send money when they and her nephews would call to ask for help.

Celia Cabal Arcilla has always sent money back home to the Philippines, but now that she’s out of work, it’s harder. Courtesy: Celia Cabal Arcilla

Losing her job meant waiting six weeks to access Hawaii’s unemployment payments. Her sister still needed help, so Arcilla borrowed money from her father-in-law. When she got her first unemployment check, she used it to pay her father-in-law back. Then a dog bit her nephew’s daughter, and she needed to send him $400 to help pay for a rabies shot.

Juggling finances over the past few weeks has been stressful but she feels like she can’t stop sending money entirely.

“You panic and as much as you want to keep some for yourself here too, you have to give, you have to send,” she said.

When she lost her job, she told her family to plant sweet potatoes in their yard and be frugal with whatever she sends them. “If you buy meat, separate into four or five different meals,” she advised.

“I just encourage them to really be thrifty and avoid going out and don’t be sick because it’s survival mode,” she said.

Even the process of sending and receiving money has gotten harder. Many of the stores and malls where money transfers are located are closed in both the Philippines and on Maui. Arcilla says she was lucky that a Western Union was still open in a Maui Foodland.

At the same time, the strict lockdowns in the Philippines mean that it’s hard for her family to go out and receive the money, or even buy food. Her biggest fear is that her family will end up sick and she won’t have enough money to help.

“Here, they save you here and you pay later,” she says. “There, no, you have to pay first.”

Weighing How Much To Send

That fear has already materialized for Judith Ramirez, a housekeeper in Waikiki. Like Arcilla, Ramirez lost her job in late March. Around the same time, she found out her 17-year-old nephew had cancer.

“We were so devastated by the news,” she says. “I told him, I’m going to find ways to fight this cancer.”

Except she doesn’t have as much to help. Before the pandemic, she sent her family $300 to $400 per month. Lately that’s dropped to $100.

Since getting her first unemployment check, she’s been weighing how much to send versus how much to save, since she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to get back to work. Even though the virus spread has slowed in Hawaii, there’s a lot of uncertainty as to when the state’s tourism industry might be able to reopen.

Customers practice social distancing inside the PNB Remittance Center located on Fort Street mall during COVID-19 pandemic.
Customers practice social distancing inside the PNB Remittance Center located on Fort Street mall during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Still, Ramirez is more worried that her parents will go hungry than whether she will. “Here in Hawaii you can get help, there’s a food bank,” she says. “In the Philippines, the government is worse.”

The pandemic is worse there as well. On Friday, the country reported more than 1,000 coronavirus cases, bringing the country’s total to more than 16,000. Nearly 1,000 people have died from the virus, according to official counts.

Recently Ramirez’s mother felt nauseated. “I was praying, oh please don’t take her to the hospital right now because I don’t have money to pay,” she said.

She’s been having trouble sleeping.

“I’m really sad knowing that I cannot help them, I cannot give them the way they want,” she says.

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