Hawaii Businesses and Workers Among Hardest Hit in Nation

Hawaii Partially Reopens Economy

By Edwin Quinabo

President Donald Trump said reopening parts of the country’s economy now would inevitably cost some Americans their lives but adds the benefits outweigh the costs.

As of mid-May, the latest swath of unemployment applications brings the national total to 33 million, that’s 1 in 5 workers out of a job since the COVID-19 lockdowns started some eight weeks ago; and that’s more jobs lost in a few weeks over the 20 million jobs added to the U.S. economy in an entire decade. Mounting unemployment and the devastating blow to local economies have most U.S. governors saying they’re now ready to take a chance to reopen.

By Sunday, May 10, 47 states opened parts of their economy even though none of those states have met the CDC and federal guidelines to reopen.



In the state of Hawaii – Kauai and the Big Island opened parts of the economy on May 7; Maui County followed suit on May 11. Gov. David Ige and Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell agreed to reopen retailers, shopping malls and some businesses on Oahu on May 15

Gov. Ige said the state has successfully “flattened the curve” and is now ready to focus on getting people back to work. Hawaii is one of only a few states registering single-digit new cases.

“We believe our community has the conditions to move into this next phase,” he said.

But is it too late? Some business owners claim their losses are too deep and that they plan to close down permanently. Hawaii has been in strict lockdown since March 15.


The Wall Street Journal reports that Hawaii’s workforce is the hardest hit in the nation in terms of workers seeking unemployment, particularly due to the shutdown of the tourism industry. 

Hawaii’s Department of Labor and Industrial Relations shows the unemployment rate at 37 percent (1 in 3 workers) as of the second week of May, compared to the national average of 15 percent in the same period.

University of Hawaiʻi Economic Research Organization (UHERO) economists Carl Bonham (Executive Director), Peter Fuleky and Byron Gangnes wrote a joint article published on UHERO’s blog that estimates job losses in Hawaii peaked at about 220,000 in April. 

The economists lists two main channels of COVID-19 job losses in the state: 1) the first orbits around the halt in tourism and accommodations with about 116,000 job losses; and 2) the remaining 104,000 job losses result from the stayat-home order. 

Where job losses occurred reveals an overreliance on tourism and need to diversify the state’s economy, some experts say; and state lawmakers already said they’ll be exploring ways to diversify the economy when session resumes later this year.

UHERO and Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii Survey

UHERO partnered with the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii to conduct an extensive survey of 623 Hawaii businesses on the impact COVID-19’s shutdown has had on local businesses and the economy. 

Over 30 percent of respondents (owners of local businesses) say their revenues have been reduced to zero during the shutdown.

The most alarming finding is one in four (about 24 percent) Hawaii businesses is expected to close if there is no additional financial assistance, even after receiving federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans.

“UHERO’s analysis leaves no doubt that Hawaii businesses have been devastated by the Coronavirus pandemic— and federal assistance alone will not be enough to save them,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, President & CEO, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.

“Losing a quarter of our local businesses was once unimaginable, but this will quickly become our reality without further government action to aid stabilization and recovery. Significant state and county support for businesses is long overdue, in particular for the industries and employee demographics that the analysis identified as especially hard hit,” Menor-McNamara added.

The Chamber president told the Filipino Chronicle, “Hawaii businesses have lost significant income while facing what seem like insurmountable obstacles to survival. As they are forced to shut down, the fabric and landscape of our local communities across the islands will be forever disrupted. The longer we wait for a path forward to recovery, the broader the negative impact on Hawaii.”

She said the best thing is to reopen Hawaii’s economy safely and put measures into place that make consumers confident that they can continue to support local businesses; and that strong state and county support are needed for economic recovery.

Other highlights of the survey:

  • Hotels and retail businesses were most likely to lay off employees. 
  • While the federal Paycheck Protection Program will increase employee retention, it will not be enough to sustain many businesses. 
  • Businesses that provide educational services, including tutoring, test-preparation and private pre-K services are down 54 percent during the crisis and are anticipating a similar drop in revenues this year. 
  • Airline passengers to the state declined from more than 30,000 per day to an economically negligible 500-600 per day recently. Reservations at restaurants dropped even before mandatory rules brought them to zero, and a sharp reduction in residents’ mobility suggests that activity across a broad swath of the economy has declined to less than half its pre-crisis level. 
  • The hardest hit in terms of full-time employee reductions were accommodations (hotels), down 83%, and retail businesses, down 76%. Food, educational, and other services all also saw reductions north of 50% of their pre-crisis full-time workforces. 
  • Owners of retail businesses, one of the largest losers in terms of employees, were more optimistic about overall revenue, estimating just a 19% drop.

Bonham said, “these data provide otherwise unavailable insight into the impacts of the economic crisis by industry and geography. They are already being used to inform our forecast work and contain many interesting findings.”

The survey says the good news is that most of the businesses surveyed anticipate being able to open and staff-up as soon as it is safe to do so – 60 percent said they could return to full staff almost immediately, with the rest phasing in as tourism returns to the Islands.

Real Estate Market

On Hawaii’s real estate market, realtor-associate and attorney Michael Yoshino said, “We’re starting to feel the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on home sales, and we can expect to see a greater impact on sales next month, as new escrows and new listings are lower than in a typical spring.”

He elaborates, “while there were fewer sales in April, median prices for both single-family homes and condos were greater than last year— an indicator that Oahu housing values will hold steady, even as we see fewer sales.”

He said the good news for prospective homeowners and those homeowners looking to refinance is that 30-year fixed mortgage interest rates have once again hit an all-time low, at 3.23 percent. 

Single-family home sales fell 21 percent (condo sales were 28 percent lower) in April 2020, compared to last April. Single-family home median prices rose by five percent to $810,000 (condo median prices rose by eight percent to $450,000) in April 2020.

Workers Most Affected

The survey shows many of the employees who have lost wages during the shutdown are some of the most vulnerable, what are sometimes referred to as “ALICE” families (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed).

Part-time jobs were more likely to have been lost than full-time (56 percent compared to 43 percent). 

Among full-time employees, those earning less than $50,000 per year were more likely to lose their position (35 percent) compared to 30 percent of those earning $50- $100k, 26 percent of those earning $100-$200k, and 16 percent of those making over $200k.

PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) Loans

The federal government’s attempt to retain employees through Small Business Administration PPP forgivable loans (loans that would be forgiven by keeping employees on payroll) might not be enough to keep businesses afloat. Thirty four percent of those surveyed say they anticipate needing to make more staff cuts in order to survive, even after PPP loans.

PPP is part of the CARES Act to help small business owners. The first round of funding, $349 billion for this program, dried up quickly. The Hawaii Bankers Association reported 11,553 Hawaii businesses received loans worth $2.1 billion in the first round. On April 23, 2020, Congress authorized an additional $310 billion in funding for PPP loans, or a second phase, which is where businesses are now scrambling to access it. Including in phase two is $60 billion allocated to community and rural banks to ensure mom and pop businesses can access funds.

The maximum amount of these loans is equivalent to 2.5 months of payroll costs, and the covered period is eight weeks. The terms of the loan require that not more than 25 percent of the forgiven amount may be used to cover non-payroll costs. This implies that 75 percent of the loan is used for personnel costs and the remainder for other business expenses. Loans up to $10 million can be forgiven.

Like business owners on the mainland, Hawaii business community have expressed difficulty and confusion over both the first and second PPP rollouts.

Hawaii’s Congressional and Senate representatives stated some of the problems in a letter to Secretary Treasury Steven Mnuchin and Administrator of the SBA Jovita Carranza. They said Hawaii’s small businesses have been significantly disadvantaged from accessing PPP in the following ways:

  • Time Disadvantage: “For starters, the SBA’s decision to commence accepting applications at 10:30AM EST, 4:30AM (on Monday, April 27) in Hawai’i, completely disadvantaged Hawai’i lenders. It was inexcusable for the SBA to provide a favorable time zone advantage to the East Coast and essentially discriminate against the West Coast and the Pacific.”
  • e-Tran system problematic: “Second, the SBA’s e-Tran system is and remains highly problematic. Although financial institutions on the continental United States are reportedly able to upload hundreds of applications a day, financial institutions across Hawai‘i are functionally unable to even access the system, and those institutions that are able to access have reported getting kicked out up to twenty times per application.
  • One-time bulk upload. “Fourth, the SBA’s last-minute Sunday evening guidance placed Hawaii’s institutions, which are all small, at a compounding disadvantage. This guidance authorized financial institutions to submit a one-time bulk upload of 5,000 or more applications and set a lending cap of $60 billion. As no Hawai’i small business lender meets the bulk upload criteria, they were forced into the single application process that has been dysfunctional.

Sens. Brian Schatz, Mazie Hirono, and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Ed Case ask that Hawaii will be able to obtain at least $1.8 billion in second round PPP funding, representing roughly the pro rata portion of total PPP availability in this current tranche as Hawai’i obtained in the first tranche.

Save Hawaii Jobs and Businesses reports that as of the first week of May, $175B funds have been used up nationally. They anticipate several more days to get loans into the SBA system.

Their figures show in the same period, 7,717 Hawaii PPP loans were approved in the second round. The total approved for round one totaled 11,553 loans.

The average Hawaii PPP loan size for round 2 is $54,000. Round 1 for Hawaii averaged $177,000.

The SBA released a change to the forgiveness requirement. If a borrower laid off an employee, then offered to rehire the same employee, but the employee declined the offer, the loan might still qualify to be forgiven.

But in order to qualify for this exception, the borrower must have made a good faith, written offer of rehire, and the employee’s rejection of that offer must be documented by the borrower.

Employees who refuse re-employment may forfeit eligibility for continued unemployment compensation.

The SBA has also come under criticism in Hawaii because some loans were approved for PPP despite not being eligible. Many Hawaii homeowners and a few homeowners associations for condominiums have applied and been approved of PPP loans even though PPP loans were intended for small businesses.

“UHERO’s analysis leaves no doubt that Hawaii businesses have been devastated by the Coronavirus pandemic—and federal assistance alone will not be enough to save them. Losing a quarter of our local businesses was once unimaginable, but this will quickly become our reality without further government action to aid stabilization and recovery. Significant state and county support for businesses is long overdue, in particular for the industries and employee demographics that the analysis identified as especially hard hit.” 

Sherry Menor-McNamara
President & CEO, Chamber of Commerce of HI

How can the state and counties help?

Menor-McNamara said there needs to be more aggressive state and county action to provide economic stabilization and help businesses survive. “Whether it’s through a grant or loan program relief of taxes and other regulations, businesses will need state and county assistance in order to survive. Kauai and Maui counties have already created grant and loan programs to assist small businesses.

“In order to turn the lights back on and revive our economy, businesses need certainty in order to plan. In this case, this means clear guidelines on reopening, clear instructions and resources on social distancing and other new normal measures, how we will measure infection rate and need for other safety measures, and how to keep employees safe.”

Prediction on Economic Rebound

UHERO economists predicts the pace of visitors to the state will be very slow. “Specifically, we assume third-quarter arrivals recover to only 28% of their fourth quarter 2019 level, and that capacity use will linger at low levels through the end of the year, held back by consumer reluctance to resume long-haul travel, pocketbook challenges, and the probability of localized virus flare-ups in some visitor markets or in Hawaii itself. By December, only half of the arrivals lost to the pandemic will have been recovered in our baseline scenario.”

On recovery of the non-tourism economy in Hawaii, UHERO economists believe the pace will be more rapid than for tourism, but will still be measured. “We assume that the process of reopening businesses will continue gradually in May, and that once the stay-at-home order is lifted, local consumption will ramp up slowly at first as businesses and consumers adjust to a new normal. In May and June, we assume the return of 35-45 percent of the business activity lost during the most extensive period of local economy shutdown in April. By December, 75 percent of economic activity lost due to the stay-at-home order will have been reversed. The less-than-complete recovery reflects macroeconomic weakness, ongoing costs of measures to preserve social distancing, and spillover effects from persistent low levels of tourism.”

Menor-McNamara told the Filipino Chronicle, “Reopening and recovery must be driven by public health—there’s a lot at stake to ensure that businesses can truly reopen instead of entering into a vicious cycle of reopening, only to be forced to shut down again by cycles of infection.”

She said COVID1-19 exposed both the state’s economy’s weaknesses and opportunities. “We have the ability to pursue opportunities in technology, sustainability, and adjust our supply chain. Tourism and the military will continue to be major drivers of Hawaii’s economy, but the Coronavirus pandemic has made it clear that we have to create and grow more self-sustaining industries.”

On the Chamber’s efforts during this crisis, Menor-McNamara said they are ensuring members and the broader business community are informed about changes that impact them and the Chamber is providing access to top experts to help them navigate these changes.

Residents’ concerns over Hawaii’s economy

Carme Langcay, EPO Adjustments Specialist at Bank of Hawaii, Waipahu, expressed several concerns: “What will happen to employees who were furloughed? Will there be a hiring freeze in companies? My concerns also are how will we be able to take care of our kids while working (schools have been postponed) and how will we be providing a better education?”

She believes when the economy reopens fully, it will not be the sameas it was before the pandemic. “People will be shopping for things they need not what they want,” said Langcay.

Blandena Buenafe, a transportation assistant at the Department of Navy and appointment registration clerk at Kaiser Permanente, echoed what Langcay said. The economy will be different. “I will be more careful with what I buy and make sure it is something I really need.

“There will be less small businesses because of the pandemic. Less of those that survived and less opening because it would not be sustainable,” said Buenafe.

She is also concerned that there might be hyperinflation, with prices of all goods increasing because there will be less demand of certain goods.

Sherry Rochelle Corpuz, a Certified Medical Assistant and Ewa Beach resident, said her husband was laid off from work since March 18 due to the pandemic. She also lost her part-time job. She is uncertain about what the new economy will be like, what the new norm will be. “Not having tourists for a while was a big lost to our economy.”

Her hope is the economy will be strong enough to enable her and her husband to pay for their mortgage, car loan and utility bills. And that means that jobs must be available for them. They each worked two jobs prior to the pandemic.

As far as changes in the way she will shop, Corpuz said she will not go to crowded places and avoid places where physical distancing is not followed

Leo Guillermo, a Barracks Manager at Kaneohe Marine Corps Base, said his job was deemed “essential” so his work schedule hasn’t changed. He says his wife had to close her office in Waipahu due to stay-at-home orders, but she was able to work from home.

“I hope Hawaii’s economy will be able to bounce back and everyone will get back on their feet. We look forward to the time when businesses will reopen. It will be different with everyone being extra careful. People will be shopping for essentials and probably will not be staying out too long.

“Health is wealth and we have to be on guard and take good care of ourselves and each other. We are all essential members of society. Let’s be united and we will overcome challenges,” said Guillermo.

Mark Lester Ranchez, Waikiki, a Store Associate at Waikiki Luggage Store, said everyone in his family has been affected by the pandemic. “We were all laid off from work. Some of us, though, were lucky enough to get some financial support from our employers. Unfortunately, I wasn’t.”

He said his job is directly dependent on tourism. So the state’s closing off of tourism led to his employer needing to shut down the store.

“I’m more concerned about our local small businesses than tourism, to be honest. This pandemic only proves how Hawaii is deeply entrenched on tourism— how we’re utterly dependent on foreign goods—and how without it Hawaii is essentially non-functioning. If we want to be smart, we need to implement policies to aid and enhance local businesses in all the islands to better cater local consumptions for the economy to ultimately be able to fend for itself in a crisis like this. We need to be more self-sustaining,” Ranchez said.

He believes the economy will not be the same until a vaccine is discovered.

Jim Bea Sampaga, Waipahu, a part-time teacher for English Language Learners at Waipahu Intermediate School, said she is now unemployed until schools reopen. She has yet to receive unemployment benefits.

She explains the catch-22 situation, “I am concerned that if we open the state now, travelers and locals who are asymptomatic might worsen the curve in Hawaii. But it’s also gonna hurt our economy if we don’t open our businesses and islands. We’re such in a difficult situation because we both want our businesses back up and running but we also can’t sacrifice our community’s health.”

Like Ranchez, Jim believes normal will not come back until a vaccine is made available. “We can’t just walk around knowing that we’re scared of each other because of the virus. We’re going to have to live our new normal with everything mostly online and limited outside exposure. Our elderly will really have to adjust to more online transactions, meeting and set-ups. One of the biggest problems Hawaii is dealing with right now is unemployment. I don’t think our new normal will help us get our jobs back unless our employers will make changes that will require our services again.”

Uncertainty for businesses

The scope of how many small businesses will survive is still a big question mark. Will the federal government – the only branch of government able to sustain massive debt – commit to yet another round of PPP rollouts to help small businesses?

With state revenues slowed to a halt due to businesses reporting zero earnings, lawmakers have their hands tied in how much assistance the state can offer to small business owners. 

Already the national trend is for states and counties to reduce services and even employees as raising taxes — normal means of supporting government if revenues drop — is not possible with a recession this deep, experts say.

The business community says they are relying on new assistance programs from banks, backed by the federal government, and consumer spending to carry them through another quarter or two when a vaccine hopefully will be available. 

Menor-McNamara is urging the general public “to continue to think local and support small businesses where possible. Many businesses have stood up innovative take out, online, or subscription programs and we need your continued support to ensure that they survive.”


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