The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is trying to fill dozens of vacant positions while also undertaking a reorganization that seeks to cut costs but could end up causing even more employees to leave the agency.

The goal of the staff reorganization, which began in April under the direction of CEO Sylvia Hussey, is to control spending and help OHA achieve goals outlined in its strategic plan by being better positioned to advocate for housing, education, health and economic stability for Native Hawaiians.

However, some current and former staffers have expressed concern that the reorganization already has driven turnover in key areas for OHA.

OHA OFfice of Hawaiian Affairs entrance.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is undertaking a massive restructuring of its offices while it fills dozens of vacant positions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

OHA’s Board of Trustees gave the administration until Dec. 31 to complete the reorganization, but officials said Monday that hiring for those vacancies will likely stretch into 2022.

In total, 60 jobs were eliminated under the reorganization, according to Hussey. Some were previously vacant or subject to a hiring freeze. Of that number, 43 employees had their positions eliminated. All were given the option of applying for new positions created under the reorganization.

Some staff left because they felt they did not meet the qualifications for the new positions. Others disagreed with Hussey’s leadership of the office.

Staffers were given until Dec. 30 to decide whether they would stay and apply for new positions or leave.

“Reorganization, in any setting, (or) context is really hard,” Hussey said Monday in an interview. “Here at OHA, it’s no different.”

OHA currently has 29 job postings on its website, including some high in the OHA hierarchy such as directors of advocacy, communications and community engagement as well as the office controller, who manages OHA’s financial structure and budgeting.

The agency also is seeking managers for offices that deal with beneficiary services, strategy management, accounting and land assets. There are also vacancies in public policy, research, grants and accounting.

OHA officials said in interviews Monday that the vacancies have already impacted the agency, which has had to rely on contractors and other partner-agencies to carry out some functions.

The vacancies also mean that OHA will need to pare down the issues it takes up at the Legislature next year while focusing on those most important to its mission, like land leases and ancestral burials.

The board of trustees approved the reorganization plan in June and set aside $1 million in carryover funds to help pay for “related costs” like accrued vacation, health insurance premiums and separation pay.

The new budget approved by the trustees would reduce the total number of full-time employees at OHA in a move expected to save about $1.5 million each fiscal year, according to budget documents. Meanwhile, more money would be allocated to OHA-funded grants as a way to get more resources to organizations that support Hawaiian beneficiaries.

The table below shows the budget approved by the trustees.

Some employees have previously told the board of trustees that they oppose the reorganization.

The positions impacted by the reorganization also received new qualifications.

Team leaders had some of the greatest changes in their positions. Under the reorganization, they would be called supervisors with additional responsibilities.

The change was “clearly meant to say, ‘Supervisor, you supervise the work, the people. You do performance evaluations. You’re accountable for your people,’” Hussey said. “Leads were not structured and functioning that way.”

Other employees left because they disagreed with OHA leadership.

Lisa Victor, a former OHA chief operating officer, left in January, she said, because she didn’t want to see OHA go through the same struggles she saw when she was hired in 2015.

OHA “wasn’t corrupt, it was just disorganized,” Victor said. “We worked really hard to bring that all back. To bring focus on compliance and policies internally.”

She’s watched the departures play out from afar and is worried that OHA does not have the staffing necessary to maintain some of its core functions like advocacy.

On Monday, Hussey and other OHA officials said they couldn’t provide an estimate of how many employees affected by the reorganization decided to leave the office or how much money the agency has spent on things like severances.

That won’t be known until the end of the year, which is the deadline for the reorganization.

OHA CEO Sylvia Hussey said the reorganization weighed heavily on her, but that it was still the right call. 

Hussey attributed the turnover this year to changes in leadership at the board of trustees as well as the Covid-19 pandemic. Some people left after taking higher positions elsewhere, she said.

Alice Silbanuz, OHA’s interim community engagement director, saw significant changes in her division. Under the reorganization, the community engagement division, which was tasked with outreach and managing OHA’s publications, would now house OHA’s public policy office as well as its compliance section.

Silbanuz said that OHA is changing, and many employees are trying to find their place in the new structure by asking if the new organization and new positions fit their qualifications, desires and passions.

“That’s the process that people have to go through,” she said. “Are they willing to go through that process … or is that not a step they want to take?”

Hussey said that some of the office’s functions, like accounting, have been contracted to outside agencies. Meanwhile, OHA is relying on other organizations to help with some of its publicly facing duties, like advocacy and outreach to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.

The vacancies also mean that heading into the 2022 legislative session, OHA may need to narrow its focus to its own priorities and let other organizations advocate for other issues.

“In this case our role is to kako’o and support, because there’s others that can carry the water,” Hussey said. “There are other (issues) like traditional and customary rights, iwi kupuna, the public land trust, 99-year leases – those are the things we need to have front and center.”

She said that the decision to reorganize the office and eliminate certain positions weighed heavily on her.

“In my head, I know why I designed the reorganization the way I did,” Hussey said. “My head and hands told me what needed to be done, but my heart ached for the employees and how they were feeling.”

Still, she believes it was the right call to go through with the reorganization. Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, an outspoken activist who also left OHA in October, thinks Hussey should be given a chance.

“If OHA is going to continue on an upward trajectory, then OHA should have the chance to grow and be developed under the current leadership,” she said.

Wong-Kalu said her experience at OHA was a positive one, but she decided to leave because she felt she could be a better asset to OHA outside the office.

Wong-Kalu was a community outreach advocate who saw her job qualifications rewritten under the reorganization. She said she met half of the qualifications but not the rest, and felt that someone else should be given a chance in the position.

She said she understands some of her colleagues’ frustration with the shakeup, but encouraged them to keep their heads up and do their best.

“The reorganization is simply change,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be bad. It’s simply change. The question then, is ‘How do we face change when we are given it?’”

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