Tovin Lapan
Tovin Lapan

As Hawaii comes closer to reopening its tourism industry, few details on what that will look like have been revealed, and the state's largest union representing hospitality and health care workers is voicing its growing concerns.

Unite Here Local 5, representing more than 12,000 workers, has organized two car caravan protests in the previous three weeks to draw attention to their demands, and union leaders are taking every meeting they can get with decision-makers to help influence the path forward, Local 5 financial secretary and treasurer Eric Gill said.

With Hawaii's two-week quarantine for out-of-state arrivals extended through July 31, the workers and union are closely watching other cities where tourism has already ramped back up. In Las Vegas, some casinos and resorts reopened June 4 with guidelines from state officials and regulators but few mandatory health requirements, leading to an array of standards and rules at various properties. A little less than two weeks after the reopening, Southern Nevada reported its highest single-day count of new active cases since the pandemic began. Now, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak says progressing to phase three of the state's reopening plan is on hold while officials review the latest spike in infections.

"In Vegas, we are seeing clearly what we knew all along: When it gets busy, all rules get blown away," Gill said. "That's why we're concentrating so hard on the enforcement angle. Vegas, like anywhere, is not going to hire hundreds of people to check enforcement. The plan has to recruit workers, guests and the public in some way to create enforcement."

The Aloha State has been losing population as cost of living has risen. Hawaii was one of just nine states that lost population in 2018, with a decline of 3,700 people following a population loss of 3,900 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Much of the outflow is among ages 18 to 34, and the average age of the hospitality workforce in particular is rising. As of April, prior to some federal programs to put people back on payrolls began, 220,000 people in Hawaii lost their jobs out of a statewide private workforce of approximately 650,000.

The balance of getting people back to work while guarding community health and wellbeing is a crucial challenge moving forward, according to Gill.

"Right now I think the question of reopening Hawaii is a double-edged sword," Gill said. "There's an opportunity to market Hawaii as a safe place to be and to go. The government obviously has to be careful about opening up to visitors, though, who can bring infection in. If there is another real surge here, the marketing advantage as a safe destination will be gone."

Gill worries that older workers who are concerned about their own health or that of their family will be penalized for not wanting to return to work immediately. As senior employees they will get the call first, but if they decline to return, their employer, technically, could then inform the state that they are no longer eligible for unemployment benefits. The union would like to have a system in place where more senior employees can pass down the opportunity to return to work to someone with less seniority without penalty or loss of benefits.

"We anticipate quite a bit of conflict as hotels are reopening and bring back workers," he said. "Some right at the start will force senior workers back to work and threaten unemployment. We have housekeepers and other hotel employees in their 60s and 70s, and they are the one most at risk from an infection."

Also, employees are often hesitant to use sick time due to contract provisions, Gill says, and for everyone's safety, anything that discourages an employee from reporting an illness and staying home from work needs to be adjusted to reflect the new reality under the pandemic.

"All the hotels, with few exceptions, have occurrence policies that disincentivize utilization. Employees can face discipline if they use more than X amount of days per year," he said. "That puts workers in a terrible situation. If workers feel their employment is at risk, they'll be reluctant not to go to work. The whole purpose of these pandemic precautions is to limit these scenarios for infection; we have to come up with some other leave system that does not negatively impact the worker."

Gill is also worried about the hotels that do not have union contracts, where management can unilaterally install procedures. At least five hotels without union agreements, he said, have terminated all of their employees and informed them they will have to reapply for their jobs.

He argues it would behoove the hotels to have an industrywide plan with some enforcement components in order to avoid cost-saving shortcuts that threaten visitor and community safety.

"It will only take one hotel, one bad player to set things back. That's why we're pushing for a uniform, high standard across the board," Gill said. "The industry, at least through the [Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association] proposals, has gone the other way, by suggesting very loose, diffuse standards. Demanding a high level of safety in all hotels helps to protect all of us, and it means a level playing field for the industry instead of employers seeking competitive advantage by ignoring safety."

The Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association, which represent more than 700 lodging and other hospitality-related businesses, issued a set of new health, safety and security standards for the industry, but the document has no enforcement provisions, and is focused on suggested best practices. Issues such as testing of employees, wearing personal protective equipment and who should provide the resources are largely left untouched.

Gill said that maintaining Hawaii's comparatively low infection rate and the image of a safe destination will be increasingly important when considering international markets, which have generally accepted stricter public health measures to combat Covid-19 than were implemented in the U.S. State officials have floated the idea of a travel bubble with Japan, Hawaii's largest feeder market other than the mainland U.S.

"If all we do is follow CDC guidelines, we will, in essence, be implementing an inferior protocol than those who send tourists to us," he said. "So will they then require a quarantine for their citizens returning from Hawaii because we have a lesser standard?"

Gill suggests many of the toughest issues have not been confronted yet because they lead to a scary question for business owners and politicians: Who's going to pay for it?

"Keeping workers safe and guests safe costs money," he said. "Testing costs money. Hiring enough people to enforce social distancing in the lobbies and other areas costs money. Robots can't tell people to break up groups. Extra cleaning in rooms costs money. These are not trivial expenses, and it leads to a basic problem: Hotel safety depends on worker safety, and that will cost money. So far none of the big chain hotels have engaged with us on any of these questions."

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