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Hawaii’s economy is on the rebound, but experts say the job market is lagging behind

Published: Aug. 3, 2021 at 5:42 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 4, 2021 at 4:41 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Despite booming visitor arrivals, a key segment of Hawaii’s economy continues to show weakness: The job market.

Since the pandemic started, Hawaii has lost 94,000 jobs, said Carl Bonham, executive director of the U.H. Economic Research Organization.

Most of those job losses were in the hotel, food services and transportation industries, he said.

“So there’s a long ways to go on the job recovery. The job recovery is under-performing,” he said.

But now that visitor arrivals and hotel occupancy are back to pre-pandemic levels, many hotel workers are questioning why they haven’t been called back.

“It’s kind of scary, you know. We’re still waiting. It’s been almost two years and year and a half,” said Breanna Gouveia, who was laid off in April 2020.

During a briefing of the state House Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness, state Rep. Richard Onishi said: “We’re hearing that there are former hotel employees that are not being rehired or hotels are not rehiring yet our visitor counts are up and many hotels are heavily successful.”

But Bonham said it will take time for hotel jobs to rebound.

“These businesses lost an enormous amount of money during the pandemic. One of the ways they try to recover is generate revenues without generating costs in the short run,” he said.

Many of the workers who haven’t been rehired work in housekeeping, which the hotels have been forced to cut back on.

Many others work in hotel restaurants or food services, which aren’t fully reopened.

“For housekeeping, most hotels that we’re aware of are doing an opt in, opt out. CDC guidelines ... say guest rooms occupied by the same customer over multiple days should not be cleaned daily unless requested,” said Mufi Hanneman, CEO of the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association.

But some workers said low staffing levels are hurting the visitor experience.

“They’re forcing (visitors) to order the Uber Eats type stuff and that kind of stuff gets left in the hall way because you don’t have daily clearing,” said Jason Maxwell, a laid off hotel worker.

“So you’ve got trash piling up in the hallways.”

Hotel experts predict the job market will rebound next year when group and business travel to Hawaii improves. The Neighbor Island job market, however, is extremely tight, business organizations said.

For example on Maui, a recent survey found that there are more than 550 job openings.

“We’re hearing hotel (general managers) helping restaurants by bussing tables and help clean pools at times,” said Pamela Tumpap, president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce.

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