Kim ‘not surprised’ by unemployment numbers

  • KIM

A total of 31,712 new jobless claims were filed in Hawaii County between March 15 and May 30, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Of those claims, 13,056 were filed through the Hilo office, while the Kona side — which is more dependent on the visitor industry that has been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic — recorded 18,656 new filings.

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Those numbers are strictly claims filed and are not the numbers of those actually receiving unemployment compensation, nor do they take into account duplicate filings.

In April, the month from which the most current numbers are available, the statewide unemployment rate was 22.3%, but that figure is thought to be low because it doesn’t count the self-employed and independent contractors who in May began receiving federally funded jobless benefits.

Hawaii County had an unemployment rate of 24% in April, as opposed to 2.9% in March and 3.4% in April 2019.

Mayor Harry Kim said Thursday he’s “not surprised.” He said his figures show about 21,000 unemployed on the Big Island.

“That’s a helluva percentage of 30% plus that are unemployed,” Kim said.

Those losing jobs come largely from the visitor industry and tourism-dependent businesses, plus retail, bars and clubs and other businesses deemed nonessential and ordered closed, plus restaurants that were forced to go on a takeout-and-delivery-only business model because of the stay-at-home order issued by Gov. David Ige on March 25.

Passengers arriving in Hawaii from out of state and interisland travelers are also subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine, slowing air passenger arrivals in Hawaii from about 30,000 per day year ago to 1,394 — of which 403 were tourists — on Wednesday.

Those stay-at-home orders and quarantines are largely credited for the decreasing number of COVID-19 cases in Hawaii, with only two new cases reported statewide Thursday, and no new Hawaii Island cases in the previous eight days, as Kim pointed out.

“And there are some districts on this island that haven’t had a new case in four, five or six weeks,” he added. “… We never had one person on this island admitted to the hospital except for overnight observation.”

Kim was criticized for being the last mayor in the state to shutter restaurant dining rooms and county parks — and he, in response, pointed out how dependent the island’s economy is on out-of-state visitors.

Asked if the still-burgeoning unemployment figures are a fair trade-off for the flattening of the coronavirus curve, he replied, “Hell, no. I don’t know what else to tell you.”

Bars and nightclubs remain closed, while restaurants are now allowed to resume dine-in services, with strict adherence to social distancing and sanitation guidelines that reopening retailers are also subject to.

Kim said Ige’s order lifting interisland travel quarantine on June 16 will help ease unemployment somewhat, “but not much, and I don’t want to be related to the word ‘much.’”

The 14-day quarantine on arriving passengers from out of state remains in effect until June 30, although Ige has indicated he is likely going to extend it sometime next week — but didn’t say how long that extension will be.

“The vast majority of our unemployment are related directly or indirectly to the tourist industry,” Kim said. “And until we impact … people coming in to the island and state of Hawaii, we’re not going to have a great impact (on unemployment figures). To have a great impact, you have to have people coming here because we rely on tourism.”

Kim said there are about 2,800 county employees, none of whom have been laid off. The state Department of Human Resources Development didn’t respond to an inquiry Thursday seeking the number of state employees on the Big Island, but the state also hasn’t ordered layoffs.

The mayor — who is running for re-election and faces 16 opponents in a crowded August primary — acknowledged community criticism over full government employment while thousands of private employees have been laid off or furloughed, with some who’ll have no job to return to when the economic dust settles.

“I don’t blame them,” Kim said, and countered that state and county employees are performing “public service jobs.” He said those jobs include processing federal grant money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, processing unemployment claims and performing other tasks to help those affected by layoffs. He also mentioned $9.6 million in CARES Act funding earmarked for the purchase and operation of 10 new county buses.

“Where would we be without our state employees or county employees … ?” Kim asked, rhetorically. “Nobody’s going to say at this time, I think, ‘Lay off all the police officers or part of the police officers.’”

Kim said Fire Chief Darren Rosario was notified by the state Legislature that because of decreases in general excise tax revenues, budget cuts being considered include lifeguards at Hapuna Beach State Park and Kua Bay in West Hawaii, and the emergency medical unit at Hawaiian Paradise Park in Puna.

Those functions, Kim said, are performed by the Hawaii Fire Department but funded by the state.

“These are county workers and, to me, are high priority issues as to what is essential,” Kim said. “I cannot, under any circumstances, allow Hapuna Beach — which is identified to be one of the most dangerous beaches — to be opened by the state, but saying ‘We’re not going to provide you money for the lifeguards.’ Or medic units for Hawaiian Paradise Park, which is the biggest growth area of the Island of Hawaii, lower Puna. Or Kua Bay, which we struggled for years to open, to say, ‘No more funding after this year.’

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“That’s the ridiculousness of cutting at the top level,” he added. “… I told the finance director, ‘These are county workers providing a very essential service that we need to fill.’ And we will maintain these positions and we’ll see where we get the money from.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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