Hawaii’s public worker furloughs hike costs as services deteriorate
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
Costs are going up and state services are going down, as the fallout from layoffs and furloughs continues to settle across government agencies responsible for everything from food and rabies inspections to issuance of birth and death certificates.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association, the largest public-sector union, is trying to document how all of the cutbacks and twice-monthly furloughs are affecting state services so union officials can lobby legislators to restore positions, possibly after this legislative session.
Randy Perreira, executive director of the HGEA, which represents about 29,000 state workers, saw the bottleneck firsthand when he recently tried to get a copy of his mother's marriage certificate for her state identification card application.
Perreira spent about an hour inside a jammed Department of Health vital records office that was overwhelmed by customers and understaffed with employees.
"The clerks were very apologetic," Perreira said. "They were saying to everyone, 'Sorry, we just don't have the people to accommodate all of the requests.' It took me nearly an hour for what would have taken only 15 minutes in the past."
The impact of understaffing and reduced hours in the Health Department's vector control and sanitation units was graphically illustrated in a well-publicized Internet video showing rats leaping about a Chinatown market stall at night last year.
Short-handed health officials responded by stepping in with inspections and advice for food handlers in Chinatown, where businesses reported a 30 percent to 50 percent drop in revenue after news of the video spread.
"This was all preventable, absolutely preventable," said Peter Oshiro, supervisor of the agency's Sanitation Branch.
"If we had been able to inspect these places at the frequency they need to be, it would have never gotten to the point that there was a rodent infestation. Our job is to find major violations of foodborne illnesses that could lead to hospitalizations and death," he said.
Oshiro testified before legislators this year about the effects layoffs and furloughs are having on his already depleted branch.
Nine O'ahu field inspectors have been left with the responsibility to inspect 5,860 food establishments, "everything from 7-Eleven to five-star restaurants," he said.
U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations call for a ratio of one inspector for every 150 restaurants, but O'ahu's ratio is now one inspector for every 651 restaurants, according to Oshiro.
He told lawmakers that each food establishment should be inspected three to four times a year, but checks are now done only once every 2 1/4 years.
Personally, Oshiro's family deals every day with the issue of pay cuts, furloughs and rising health care costs since HGEA members voted in October to ratify a two-year contract that includes 18 furlough days this fiscal year and 24 in the next fiscal year for most state workers represented by the union.
The furloughs are equivalent to about an 8 percent pay cut, while members are paying 23.4 percent more for health insurance premiums.
Oshiro's wife, Jennifer, works as a research statistician for the state Department of Education, and their son, Darian, is a University of Hawai'i freshman who struggled to get his pre-pharmacy classes during a period of record-high enrollment.
"He's going to miss the boat," Oshiro said. "He had to take an online class and he might have to go to community college to pick up credits. It's humbug."
Gov. Linda Lingle's spokesman, Russell Pang, said in a statement that state agencies have implemented "innovative ways to minimize the impact to the public, while continuing to provide essential services, especially those related to public health and safety."
"At the same time, the departments are continuing to work to make the services they offer more efficient and affordable, as well as sustainable in the long run," he said. "These tough decisions and innovative approaches the administration is implementing are not unlike those being taken by Hawai'i families and businesses who have all been deeply affected by the global and national recession."
Department of Human Services spokeswoman Toni Schwartz said services have not been affected, despite the department losing 96 full-time positions at the end of last year, leaving it with 246 full-time employees.
"When we made our decisions on layoffs, our goal was to keep it from impacting our clients, and we have not heard of any problems with services since we started the RIF (reduction in force)," Schwartz said. "... In every case, the divisions and branches are trying very hard to continue as high a level of service as they can with the resources available."
She said divisions within the department are looking for alternative sources of funding, such as applying for federal and grant money, creating special funds to maintain particular services, and partnering with other government and private organizations.
At the Department of Agriculture, the hours to check incoming dogs and cats for rabies at Honolulu International Airport have been reduced.
The cutbacks affect passengers connecting to Neighbor Island flights, who now must arrive early in Honolulu to make sure their pets are cleared, spokeswoman Janelle Saneishi said.
The Agriculture Department also plans to stop airport inspections of incoming fresh produce and plants after 8:30 p.m., starting Sunday.
"Cargo needing inspection that arrives after inspection hours will be held for inspection until the next morning," Saneishi said. "After-hour inspections may be prearranged, but shippers will be charged for the overtime."
And because the pesticide enforcement staff on O'ahu has been cut from three inspectors to one, the team will focus on complaint investigations, not inspection of commercial pest control operators, nursery owners, farmers, retailers and wholesalers to assure compliance with state and federal pesticide sale and use requirements, she said.
Agriculture officials also worry that staffing cuts to the Plant Pest Control Branch will make it harder to eradicate invasive plant pests threatening native forests on Maui; survey for varroa bee mites on Kaua'i; and prevent the spread of other alien invaders.
Fewer employees and work hours will eliminate 400 types of annual agriculture reports and other research and statistical data, such as those tracking tropical fruit and vegetable production, export growth, weekly wholesale prices to prevent price gouging, and weekly barge and air shipments of agricultural commodities.
In addition, the department's Measurement Standards Branch will stop annual taxi meter inspections and checks of supermarket shelf prices to make sure prices match those rung up at the register.
The furloughs also are taking a toll on workers receiving lighter paychecks.
Oshiro, 48, said he had to refinance his three-bedroom, two-bath house in Mililani Mauka.
"Every facet of our life is being affected by furloughs, budget cuts and increases," he said. "Nobody's safe. It's very spooky. We're living on the edge all the time. It's frightening."