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Now hiring: Employers struggle to find new workers

  • A ‘hiring now’ sign is displayed facing Ali’i drive at the entrance of On the Rocks in Kailua-Kona. (Tom Linder/West Hawaii Today)

  • Employers at Queens’ Marketplace Waikoloa Beach Resort await job seekers at a mostly empty job fair on the Coronation Pavilion. (Tom Linder/West Hawaii Today)

Help wanted. Now hiring. Job fair.

Job advertisements aren’t hard to find on the Big Island. Tougher to find, as businesses are discovering with the rebound of tourism, are workers to fill the plethora of available positions.

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Despite Hawaii’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hovering at 9% in March, employers are struggling to bring on new hires.

“It’s a major problem,” said Eric von Platen Luder, owner of multiple restaurants including Huggo’s, Lava Lava Beach Club and Kai, which is set to open next month. “We’re experiencing it with all of our locations … . Right now, we’re getting maybe half a dozen applications a week, if we’re lucky. Before, we would put an ad in Facebook and Craigslist and we would get 10, 15 applicants within a day or two.”

“It’s been unbelievable,” added Poi Dog Deli’s owner Taylor Cline. “I’ve never seen a hiring drought like this before.”

Early on during the pandemic, Gov. David Ige waived the work search requirements to qualify for unemployment benefits. In April 2020, less than 5,000 visitors arrived in the Aloha State and the unemployment rate soared to over 21%. As many as 53,113 initial unemployment claims were made in a single week, and it was under these conditions — when few places remained open and even less were hiring new workers — when waiving that requirement made sense. A year later, business owners are now calling for work search requirements to be reinstated.

“Business is here,” said Patrick Almarza, general manager of Sansei Seafood, Steak &Sushi Bar during Queens’ MarketPlace Waikoloa Beach Resort’s job fair on Wednesday.

Visitor counts, while not at pre-pandemic levels, have still rebounded significantly. According to the state’s Safe Travels statistics, more than 500,000 visitors arrived statewide in March; nearly 85,000 of those visitors landed at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.

Almarza was just one of the many employers at Coronation Pavilion in Queens’ MarketPlace including Crocs, Ippy’s Hawaiian BBQ, Island Gourmet Markets, Kuleana Rum Shack, Hilton and more looking for employees. Three hours into the job fair, no employer had conducted a single interview. Even if a company secures an interview, employers have reported applicants turning down jobs, claiming they get more money from unemployment.

While the employers in Waikoloa hope applications will pick up at day two of the job fair — going from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 4-7 p.m. today at Queens’ MarketPlace — the sentiment was widely shared that the work search requirement needs to return.

As businesses remain short staffed for longer and longer, employee burnout has become a growing concern. In an effort to avoid overworking staff, Cline elected to close Poi Dog Deli on Sundays until more workers can be brought on.

“It’s more important to me to preserve my team than it is to be open one more day of the week,” Cline said. “We’re not in danger of going out of business anymore. … We need reinforcements. We need some relief.”

Relief might soon be on the horizon.

In an April 16 Spotlight Hawaii interview with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, indicated the work search requirement will be a topic of discussion with Ige.

“It’s something that we’re going to sit down with the governor shortly: discuss what the environment looks like right now, what the workforce looks like, if there are jobs out there to apply for,” said Perreira-Eustaquio.

While the move wouldn’t be a silver-bullet solution — concerns remain about how effective DLIR’s enforcement of the work search requirement could be, and many parents will still have to remain home to care for children not yet returned to school full-time — the tourism industry on the Orchid Isle has made clear that it should be the next step in the return to normalcy.

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“The tourists are back,” Cline said. “It’s time for everybody to get back to work.”

Email Tom Linder at tlinder@westhawaiitoday.com.

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