With the U.S. economy slouching toward a recession, the holidays hardly look happy for tens of thousands of Americans, as major tech companies like Amazon, Twitter and Facebook parent Meta have announced that they’ll be handing out pink slips instead of Thanksgiving turkeys.

But job news in Hawaii hasn’t been so dire — at least for the service-oriented sectors that play a big role in the state’s economy.

The holidays this year, in fact, might be an especially good time for people to pick up a few extra bucks with a short-term retail gig.

Total non-farm jobs in Hawaii have risen toward pre-pandemic levels and were hovering at approximately 614,700 in September compared with 659,100 in February 2020, before the pandemic started, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compares to a low of about 507,900.

Meanwhile, the statewide unemployment rate in September was 3.5%, down from a peak of 22.4% in April 2020.

Jen Abuel
Jen Abuel, manager of Surf Camp and Up and Riding in Kahala Mall, is one of numerous retailers looking for new workers as the holidays approach. “We’re just constantly hiring,” she said. Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2022

All this means retailers are pressing harder than ever to find people.

“This is kind of our Super Bowl,” said Tina Yamaki, president of Retail Merchants of Hawaii, a trade association. “Everyone is looking to hire, and it’s getting harder and harder to find employees who are qualified.”

There’s no state data on seasonal holiday retail hiring, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization.

But Bonham said the numbers show the overall rebound in retail employment, while still lower than before the pandemic, has tracked Hawaii’s overall rebound.

There were 64,600 retail jobs statewide in September according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared with 71,100 in February 2020, before the pandemic.

Given the relative lack of data, Bonham said, the best way to find out what’s going on is to talk to retailers.

“You probably need to go to the mall,” he said.

A short tour of Kahala Mall bears out Yamaki’s assertion that just about everybody’s looking for help. A case in point is Jen Abuel, manager of Up and Riding and its sister store, Surf Camp, a surf boutique that sells an array of items related to the ocean and outdoors, including coolers, camping gear and swim fins and masks. Between them, the two stores need a dozen workers, Abuel said.

Abuel said she would love permanent hires or seasonal workers for the holidays. The stores pay $12 to $14 an hour, she said, depending on experience. And she said, workers receive training in all aspects of retail.

That makes the job a great stepping stone into retail, Abuel said, but many of the store’s college and high school-aged employees leave after awhile, either to go off to college or to go home to the mainland on school breaks.

The result: “We’re just constantly hiring,” she said.

Also hiring are small, locally owned stores like the jewelry and gift shop Sugar Sugar Hawaii, which has help wanted flyers posted around the store, and SoHa Living.

“We’re looking for any kind of shifts,” said Kayla Fuentes, SoHa Living’s store manager.

Large Retailers Are Also Hiring

It’s not just jobs aimed at high school kids in affluent Kahala.

Indeed.com shows seasonal job openings across Oahu. Bath & Body Works, for instance, is looking for people in Aiea, Kaneohe, Pearlridge and Kapolei. Target, Ross, Macy’s and TJ Maxx parent TJX also were hiring seasonal employees across the island.

All this is a big change since the worst days of the pandemic, Yamaki says, when retail workers were sent home by government-imposed business closings. Many sidelined workers simply never came back when the stores reopened, Yamaki said.

Some retired, others turned side hustles into full-time jobs and others fled the state entirely, as part an ongoing trend of outmigration, Yamaki said.

Masked and unmasked people walk along the shops at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
The demand for seasonal works is high as the holiday shopping season begins. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But the Great Resignation only exacerbated a problem that predated Covid-19, Yamaki said. Before Covid-19, Hawaii’s unemployment rate of just over 2% meant anyone who needed a job could get one and that employers were struggling to find help.

“Prior to the pandemic everybody was short-staffed already,” Yamaki said.

The demand for seasonal workers in 2022 might resemble the happier times before the pandemic, but Yamaki said there are key differences. For instance, she said, many retailers this year launched Black Friday sales in October instead of the traditional Friday after Thanksgiving. And while many retailers used to open as early as 12 a.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving, that isn’t happening this year, she said.

Perhaps more important as an indicator of the economic outlook, many retailers are reducing the volume of merchandise they are ordering this year.

Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, said it is a sign of caution.

“You’ve got to be careful, especially because many small businesses have faced so many challenges,” she said.

Despite the general increase in Hawaii employment, Bonham noted, there have been some anomalies that he can’t explain. Wholesale trade jobs never bounced back. And jobs in banking and insurance – the sort of white collar jobs that can be done from home — also have dropped and never bounced back, he noted.

While the abundance of seasonal jobs might provide extra cash for people, they’re not likely to be an economic savior for the enormous numbers of people struggling to get by amidst Hawaii’s high cost of living. An oft-cited, 2017 study by the Aloha United Way found 42% were in poverty or barely making enough to cover basic living expenses, like housing, food and transportation. A 2020 update estimated the number could rise significantly higher because of the economic shocks of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, studies suggest it’s tough to get by on Hawaii’s average retail wage. The Aloha United Way, for instance, pegged the hourly living wage for one person in Hawaii at about $14 in 2015, which would be about $18 in 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A living wage study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology puts the number even higher, at almost $23. The average retail trade job in Hawaii in September, meanwhile, paid about $22 an hour, the bureau reports.

Still, many seasonal workers might be willing to accept lower wages in exchange for an employer’s willingness to train a first-time worker and accommodate the worker’s busy schedule.

SoHa Living’s Fuentes said store managers are accustomed to dealing with employees’ school, sports and extracurricular activities.

“We’re like – hey, what is your availability? We’ll work around it,” she said.

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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