Where are the employees?
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Larry Kee made money from the Baskin-Robbins ice cream store he ran for a decade in the Hawaii Kai Towne Center, but had to shutter it last month when he couldn't find workers.
Since January, Kee and his wife, Karen, found themselves sometimes putting in 17-hour days working by themselves in Hawai'i Kai instead of overseeing all three of their Baskin-Robbins operations, including stores in Kailua and Kapolei.
Ultimately, they burned themselves out in what may be one of the toughest examples of businesses struggling to hire employees in one of the tightest job markets in the country.
"We tried hard to keep it open, but physically we just couldn't do it," Larry Kee said. "It was a profitable store, a profit-making store, but there was no way we could continue. We just don't have the abundance of people applying for jobs like several years ago. They just weren't available."
The death of the Hawai'i Kai Baskin-Robbins represents a dramatic casualty of otherwise good economic times in the Islands. Until May, Hawai'i had enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate in the country for 24 straight months. Even after rising to 3 percent in May, the latest state figure available, Hawai'i's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate still tied for second-lowest in the country.
For business owners like the Kees, the flip side of a robust economy means a shallow labor pool that can actually stunt business growth.
This year, for the first time, an overwhelming majority of the members of the Chamber of Commerce of Hawai'i — 86 percent — listed the quality and availability of Hawai'i's workforce as one of the top three issues facing Island businesses in the chamber's annual survey.
"This is the first time the issue has moved to the top of the list," chamber president Jim Tollefson said. "It is a definite concern. Not a week goes by — probably not a day goes by — when I don't talk to someone who is looking for people. It is a reoccurring theme that's impacting large and small businesses. It's across the board."
The University of Hawai'i Economic Research Organization this month predicted that Hawai'i's low unemployment rate — combined with rising inflation and shrinking visitor arrivals — would slow the Islands' economic growth this year and next.
UHERO cited "some evidence that tight labor markets are beginning to act as a brake," according to the organization's latest economic forecast.
In Kona, the KFC restaurant has had to open late or close early two or three times in the past six months because it didn't have enough workers, said Steve Johnson, general manager of Kazi Foods of Hawai'i, the franchisee that represents Burger King and KFC in the Islands.
The only consolation for Johnson has been the knowledge that some of KFC's fast-food competitors in Kona also have had to occasionally cut back on hours because of the labor crunch.
"It's really been a struggle," Johnson said. "It's completely frustrating. But it gives me a little bit of relief when I see our competitors have to do it as well."
Like other companies, Kazi Foods' 29 KFCs and 22 Burger Kings have been offering signing bonuses for the past three months that range from $100 for a regular "team member" to $500 for assistant managers — as long as they stay for 90 days and have a good work record.
At the Grand Cafe & Bakery in Chinatown, the tables have been full for breakfast and lunch. But owners Mona Chang Vierra and Patsy Izumo can't find the extra workers they need to add the new dinner seating their customers want.
"We're always asked, 'Can't you please open for dinner?'" Vierra said. "Unemployment is almost nonexistent so this is the problem we face. If we could just find a few good people, we could open for dinner in a heartbeat."
NO 'GOOD APPLICANTS'
Vierra and her son Anthony, the restaurant's executive chef, boosted starting salaries to as much as $12 per hour for experienced chefs, including full medical coverage. But they've still only received a handful of applications, including one from a chef candidate who had been fired for stealing from his previous restaurant.
"That's the kind of people we're getting," Mona Chang Vierra said. "I don't want surly employees no matter how desperate we are. And as hard up as we are, we're not going to hire someone who's going to steal us blind."
On a personal level, some business owners are wearing down under the grind of covering workers' shifts just to keep operating.
David Uno, the owner of 'Aiea Copy Center, didn't even want to think about how much more time he's been spending in his shop.
"The shortage has definitely made me work harder and put in more hours than I would like," Uno said. "There just aren't that many good applicants available."
Uno spent months looking for two new employees and finally had to bump the wage he offered from $8.50 to $10 per hour. He finally found the extra workers after stapling "help wanted" fliers to every customer's shopping bag.
Angela Tanigawa, the owner of the Hawaii Kai Towne Center Fantastic Sams, next to the former Baskin-Robbins, would like to focus on managing her shop of eight chairs. But being down a stylist until recently meant that Tanigawa sometimes had to work on customers instead of running the operation.
"You have to survive," Tanigawa said. "So I have to cut hair, too."
'ALL WE COULD TAKE'
Like many shopping centers throughout the Islands, almost every other storefront in the Hawaii Kai Towne Center carries some form of help-wanted sign.
The shopping center conducted a job fair in June that generated only about eight applications for the Panda Express restaurant.
"We definitely could have used more," assistant manager Aldene Agpaoa said. "We're always looking for workers. We always need more people to join us."
Eunji Park, a part-time worker at the Sushiman restaurant, was disappointed that only one job candidate turned in an application at the restaurant.
"It's really hard to get applications," Park said. "We need more employees, but only one person came in — just one."
Park, a University of Hawai'i sophomore studying biology, is working full time during her break from school. In the fall, she plans to cut back to 20 hours even though she knows it will leave the restaurant even more short-handed.
Kee spent months trying to keep his Hawai'i Kai Baskin-Robbins open as he scrambled to recruit six to eight employees to run it.
But since January, Kee received only one job application. And it came from a candidate who wanted to work a handful of specific hours on Sundays.
"That was it," Kee said.
So Kee started carpooling his Baskin-Robbins employees from Kapolei and Kailua to his old Hawai'i Kai store — and back.
"After a while, we didn't have any more people," Kee said. "The labor market just got tighter and tighter until we ran out of people. In the end, there was no let-up in sight. It was all we could take."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.