Jobless claims still high
By Susan Hooper
Advertiser Staff Writer
As Hawai'i's economy struggles to right itself in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the weekly number of first-time unemployment claims statewide appears to have plateaued but at a level nearly twice as high as before the attacks.
Between 2,600 and 2,700 people have been filing first-time unemployment claims each week recently, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Before the attacks, the department received about 1,400 new claims a week.
And there's more bad news: In the first week of December, requests for unemployment benefits were the highest in 25 years, as 19,559 people asked for assistance.
The growing number of people who have lost income as a result of the sharp and swift downturn in tourism following the terrorist attacks on has strained Hawai'i's social fabric, placing a heavy burden on everyone from individual families to social service providers accustomed to stretching scant resources in tough times.
Since the attacks, more than 39,000 people statewide have filed new unemployment claims; labor department officials estimate 80 percent of those claims are from people in tourism or related industries who have been laid off or had their hours cut.
And some employers say they cannot predict when, or if, they will begin to bring back workers, largely because of continuing weakness in the crucial Japanese visitor market.
For the moment, "we're staying where we are," said Sharon Weiner, group vice president of retailer DFS Hawaii, which laid off about 70 people in October and also cut the equivalent of 250 to 300 people by reducing hours. The company, which depends heavily on spending by Japanese visitors, now has about 1,300 employees statewide.
"We're not seeing very much improvement in the business from Japan," she said. In the first quarter of next year, she said, "we hope things will get markedly better, but we don't see it on the horizon from Japan."
Hawai'i retailer ABC stores, which has about 800 employees in Hawai'i, Guam, Saipan and Las Vegas, relies heavily on tourists for its revenues. After the attacks, the company reduced hours for its workers but has continued their medical benefits and made a point of not laying anyone off, said company president Paul Kosasa. "As a company that cares for its employees, our goal is to keep everybody employed," he said.
Still, Kosasa admitted that continuing the medical benefits has been "a struggle," given the downturn in business. And even though he plans to restore hours for employees "as soon as the numbers get better," Kosasa can't say when that day will be.
"It's pretty uncertain," he said. "But I heard February is going to be pretty good from what I hear as far as advance bookings, so there is positive news out there. So hopefully we get some positive surprises."
Employees who have been laid off have been making adjustments, too.
Yuko Lee, a 46-year-old single mother who lives in Makiki, had two full-time waitressing jobs before Sept. 11: She worked the breakfast and lunch shift four days a week at the Waikiki Parc Hotel and the tea and dinner shift five days a week at the Sheraton Moana Surfrider.
After the attacks, Lee lost her job at the Waikiki Parc and had her work at the Moana cut to between 10 and 20 hours a week. Lee, who earned $6.23 an hour at each job, also saw her tips plummet, from $150 on a good day before the attacks to between $10 and $20 a day now. She said she doesn't even want to estimate how much less her total income is now than it was before Sept. 11.
To help pay her bills, Lee is drawing on unemployment, dipping into her savings and working part-time as a custodian for her church.
"I am still hanging on," Lee said with a smile as she left the state unemployment office on Punchbowl Street Friday afternoon. "My church family is helping me a lot. Without my church family, I cannot do. God gave lots of courage to me, so I don't feel fear."
With the holidays approaching, Lee is picking up some extra work at other Waikiki Sheratons. But she is bracing for the long haul.
"My hotel told us probably until June is the same situation," she said. "That's a long time period nine months to be laid off."
Even as many Hawai'i employers settle into a temporary holding pattern with smaller staffs, however, some companies are flying in the face of expectations.
Tourism retail business Maui Divers of Hawai'i cut five support positions out of its 400 jobs after the attacks and reduced hours about 15 percent overall for many of its remaining employees. But the company recently hired 20 sales people and is looking for another 20, in preparation for opening five new locations in the Islands, according to Bob Taylor, Maui Divers' president and chief executive officer.
And he hopes the firm will be able to restore hours to employees whose work schedules were cut.
"We expect, as the business continues to grow, that the hours will be increased gradually each month starting in January and hopefully be back to regular hours by the middle of the year," he said.
Taylor acknowledged that Maui Divers' Japanese business is still off substantially. But the domestic business, which has become the company's biggest market, is off by "only a small amount," he said.
"I think it's just going to gradually come back," he said of overall business. "I think the domestic market will be back to where it was a year ago by the end of the second quarter, but the Japanese market will only be partially back."
"I think we're still very optimistic about long-term business in Hawai'i," he said.
Reach Susan Hooper at email@example.com or 525-8064.