Big Island businesses still struggling to find workers despite end to pandemic aid

  • RUDERMAN

  • YOSHIOKA

Although many pandemic unemployment programs are no longer available, Hawaii businesses are still having trouble finding workers.

Federal pandemic unemployment benefits, including the Pandemic Extended Unemployment Compensation program and the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, ended on Sept. 6. Despite this, there has not been a surge in people returning to work.

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“There may have been a blip, a small increase, maybe, but businesses are still struggling,” said Miles Yoshioka, executive officer of the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce.

Yoshioka said Big Island businesses ranging from small restaurants to large retail operations like KTA Super Stores are struggling to fill positions, with some employers reporting more than 100 job openings.

Chad Yang, managing owner of Hula Hula’s restaurant at the Grand Naniloa Hotel, said he is having difficulty finding employees willing to work. Yang said he received 40 responses to a job listing, from which he selected 10 candidates for interviews. Of those 10, only four actually showed up to interviews, and two were offered jobs.

Of those two, Yang said, one claimed they contracted COVID-19 and didn’t show up on their first day. The other also didn’t show up, but never offered a reason why.

“So, we’re right back at square one,” Yang said.

“I’ve seen people blow off interviews, I’ve seen people pass their interviews and not show up for their first day,” said Russell Ruderman, owner of the Island Naturals grocery chain. “I never saw that before. It’s not about money — sometimes we hadn’t even gotten to the point of discussing the money.”

Yang and Ruderman speculated that many “job seekers” are really just going through the motions in order to be eligible for unemployment benefits. In May, Gov. David Ige reinstated rules requiring unemployment beneficiaries to apply for at least three jobs a week in order to receive benefits.

Yoshioka agreed that many applicants are likely only doing so to maintain eligibility, but added that workers’ priorities also have shifted during the pandemic.

“People are a lot more conscious of their families’ needs, and their own quality of life,” Yoshioka said, adding that, after so many businesses allowed workers to work from home over the pandemic, workers are resistant to return to a public work environment where they will directly interact with more people.

Although businesses have fewer workers, Yoshioka said many are still as busy as ever.

“It doesn’t matter whether (a restaurant) is takeout-only or dine-in, the food still has to get made,” Yoshioka said. “And by this point, employees are tired.”

Ruderman said Island Naturals, as a grocery chain, has continued to operate without major changes throughout the pandemic, only cutting some food service jobs early on.

“We’re right on the edge of being desperate,” Ruderman said.

Some employers have offered incentives for employees to come in to work.

KTA is offering a $750 new hire signing bonus for cashiers and courtesy clerks throughout their first 520 hours of work.

But although the severity of the pandemic has worsened over recent months because of the rise of the Delta variant, leading to a return to some pandemic restrictions, there currently is no sign that any pandemic unemployment programs will resume.

“Congress makes policy decisions, and we administer those policy decisions,” said Anne Perreira-Eustaquio, director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, during a livestreamed interview Wednesday. “And since the programs ended, there is no program to continue to administer.”

Perreira-Eustaquio said the state’s unemployment rate was 7% in August, significantly improved from the 14% rate of August 2020.

“We see the struggle that employers are going through as well,” Perreira-Eustaquio said, adding that DLIR is struggling to find employees to staff its call center.

With residents not working or receiving as robust unemployment benefits as they were during the pandemic, Yoshioka speculated there may be trouble on the horizon.

“Anecdotally, someone in retail said a lot of people are cash-poor … they’re seeing a lot of credit card payments,” Yoshioka said. “So just imagine what’s going to happen a few months from now.”

Yoshioka said he believes people will be willing to return to work once the pandemic ends or becomes less severe — when people become more comfortable sending their keiki to school, when people are less afraid of exposing themselves or their families to COVID.

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But unfortunately, Yoshioka said he doesn’t see that happening this year.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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