As businesses eye economic recovery, some unemployed workers fear going back to work

Published: Apr. 29, 2020 at 10:54 AM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the state starts planning for the eventual reopening of the economy, there’s growing concern that some people will decide they don’t want to return to work.

The reason starts with basic math.

With the federal government’s $600 weekly bonus added to unemployment checks through July, some people are making just as much money — or even more — staying home than going to work.

State Labor Department officials, however, say that workers who turn down jobs could end up owing their unemployment benefits back to the state.

The other part of the equation is the risk of infection.

“Hotel workers are spooked by the transmissibility of the disease,” said Unite Here! Local 5 Treasurer Eric Gill.

Gill said the workers that drive Hawaii’s tourism industry must first have confidence they’re returning to a safe workplace. Then they need financial incentives to take that risk.

[READ MORE: LIST: Here are your questions for the state unemployment office, answered]

State lawmakers are well aware this could be a sticking point in reviving the economy. “They’re very afraid of contracting the virus and getting sick and taking it home to their kids,” said state Sen. Kurt Fevella.

“It’s happening nationwide,” said Chamber of Commerce Hawaii President, Sherry Menor-McNamara.

She says the Chamber will work to support businesses that need their workers back.

But University of Hawaii economists expect only half of the jobs lost in Hawaii will return by June.

When companies do restart, the law is on their side, said state Labor Director Scott Murakami.

“If an employer offers you the job and you’re available to take it and you don’t take it, what happens is you continue to get benefits but the employer has the right to appeal,” he said.

If an employer prevails in that appeal, the worker has to pay back that unemployment money.

While state lawmakers discuss ways to avoid widespread disputes, the hotel union said any solution must start with intensive testing of workers and visitors.

“If they’re sick, if their co-workers are sick, if the guests are sick, people need to know these things,” said Gill. “And without some testing there’s no way, in my opinion, that we’re going to get any real resumption of tourism here.”

Meantime, the state’s new unemployment call center at the Hawaii Convention Center is processing about 10,000 claims a day. But only about a third of those who’ve filed have received any money yet.

This story may be updated.

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