Workers face uncertain future as eruptions hit Big Island tourism hard

Several businesses in Volcano town have had to layoff or cut their employees hours a result of tourist cancellations due to the eruptions in Lower Puna and the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Several businesses in Volcano town have had to layoff or cut their employees hours a result of tourist cancellations due to the eruptions in Lower Puna and the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

VOLCANO, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - As lava spews from the ground in lower Puna destroying everything in its path, residents in a town more than 20 miles away are suffering the eruption's economic impacts.

Since the closure of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, the flow of tourists has stopped — crippling the service and hospitality industries in the small town of Volcano on the Big Island.

Just a few miles from Kilauea's summit, one of Volcano Village's most popular restaurants sat empty on Friday morning.

"We have no idea when the park is going to reopen," said server Haven Fisher. "It's stressful not knowing when this is going to end."

Despite being far from the lava, business owners say tourists are unnecessarily fearful and avoiding the town.

"It's horrible what's going on in Leilani Estates and my heart goes out to the residents down there," said Janet Coney, office manager at Kilauea Lodge and Restaurant. "But we're OK over here and we're open."

For weeks now the lodge been running on a skeleton crew.

"Pretty much everyone has been getting one or two shifts a week in comparison to normal, like four or five," Fisher said.

With pay a fraction of what it was — workers have been forced to find new ways to make ends meet.

Kellie Thatcher and her husband, who are in the process of building a home, are living off the grid as they wait out the decline in business.

"I live off a generator. We have to go fill gas all the time. We're just not running power so we're buying less gas," Thatcher said. "We can't build on our house because all of our money needs to go into surviving."

It seems like almost every business that lines Old Volcano Road is feeling the effects of Madame Pele.

"We're going to be closing for three weeks and evaluating the situation after that," said Eric Clough, an employee at Thai Thai Bistro and Bar.

Over at Volcano Garden Arts, business has dropped more than 50 percent.

"I've had to cut down hours of my staff," said owner Ira Ono. "We have over 100 local artists across the state in my gallery. They are mostly on consignment so my first order of business is to pay my artists and  that's been possible, but it does impact the staff I have right now."

With so many people so desperate for work, picking up a side job is nearly impossible. Now some employers are suggesting another option to help staff get by.

"We've been encouraging our staff to please reach out to the unemployment department and at least try and get partial unemployment during this difficult time," Coney said.

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