Revived visitor industry soars, but job market underperforms

LIHU‘E — Job recovery is lagging behind a rebounding tourism industry as the delta variant of the novel coronavirus causes cases to surge, experts say.

“The visitor recovery has surprised everyone,” Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawai‘i Economic Research Organization, told state representatives at a meeting held on Monday.

“The pent-up demand, the excess savings, the wanderlust, everything that drove the visitor arrivals … put us at roughly 90% of 2019 levels (in July).”

The number of visitors exceeds experts’ most optimistic projections, according to Bonham. However, jobs recovery is only 40% complete.

“Back in the early part of the pandemic — April, early May (2020) — we lost 153,000 jobs,” he said. “We’re still down 94,000 jobs.”

Bonham had no “exact answer” for the state’s underperforming job market, but offered several theories for the nationwide phenomenon, which is predominant in the service industry. These included hesitancy to work, for fear of exposure to COVID-19, businesses attempting to maximize profits through smaller staffs, and low wages.

Bonham indicated pandemic-related unemployment benefits have a negligible impact on the unemployment rate, which was 11.2% on Kaua‘i in June, the highest in the state.

“Benefits are having some impact on people’s willingness to work. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “It’s not the only factor … if you compare those states that eliminate those (benefits) with states who didn’t, there’s virtually no difference in their employment-to-population ratios.”

Bonham said it’s discouraging to not see a surge in employment just yet, but it’s still possible.

“I still think we’re going to see that, because the strengthening demand for workers will continue to grow and you’ll see wages continue to grow and encouraging people to go back to work,” Bonham said.

Representatives were also briefed by leaders in Hawai‘i’s health care system, including Jill Hoggard Green, CEO of Queen’s Health Systems, who spoke of the highly contagious delta variant making its way across the island chain.

“When we talked about COVID and its spread, we’d say one person usually spreads it to two to three people,” Green said. “With the delta variant, one person can be spreading it to seven to nine people.”

Just over 60% of the state population is fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, according to the state Department of Health. The vast majority of delta cases are among unvaccinated individuals, who run a greater risk of contracting the disease and experiencing more-serious symptoms, experts reported.

“If you’re vaccinated, you are fighting and you’re fighting hard,” Green continued. “But if you are unvaccinated, you are not prepared to fight that virus. So, the rates of hospitalization with unvaccinated people may actually go up.”

And that’s what Green is already seeing.

“About two weeks ago, I would say we had about four patients in Queen’s hospitals that had COVID. This morning, it was 56,” she said. “Every day, it’s rapidly going up and it’s rapidly going up predominantly with individuals that are unvaccinated … all of our health systems, we’re prepared to care. There’s no question. But we’ve got to mobilize getting those vaccinations.”

Bonham, Green and other speakers said the good news is, “we already know what to do” to combat the delta variant: get vaccinated, wear a mask and stay six feet apart.

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of the Hawai‘i Medical Service Association, compared the ongoing pandemic to a worsening rainstorm. The vaccine is a raincoat, he said, and facemasks are umbrellas.

“If it’s not raining too hard, the raincoat is going to do well. It’s going to keep you pretty dry,” Mugiishi said. “But if it starts to really pour, then maybe, even if you’re wearing a raincoat … you might get wet. So common sense says take an umbrella, too.”


Scott Yunker, general assignment reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or

  1. Irene Stanek August 3, 2021 4:14 am Reply

    I just returned from Hawaii and the problem is NOT no jobs but a lack of people willing to work when they are getting money from the government! Everywhere I went businesses were crying out for workers but some are now making more money from the Government than doing their old job. So why work? Sad situation and a big problem. Time to get back to reality and cut off these hand outs to get things back to normal.

    1. wow August 3, 2021 1:52 pm Reply

      It amazing how much of an expert you became while visiting. But you may have overlooked how little those positions pay considering the work they do. Dealing with tourists isn’t always exactly fun… But I’m sure you know that, don’t you?

      1. IRENE stanek August 4, 2021 1:29 pm Reply

        When people don’t know the entire story and feel they are experts on a random comment they are showing great ignorance. Lived in Kauai 9 years, spend a few months now every year and have done so and been involved in clubs and community affairs for a long long time. Therefore your sarcasm was completely unwarranted and out of line. Disagree with my comment all you want but don’t invent scenarios you know nothing about,

  2. who da guy August 4, 2021 7:07 am Reply

    So, at our place of work, a visitor activity, entry level employees make $18 to $22 per hour plus tips. Tips range from $120 to $160 per 8 hour shift. Most entry level workers make $35. with per hour. There are very few applicants and positions go unfilled. this has never happened pre covid. The government handouts are crippling our economy. Please incentives people to go back to work.

    1. Irene Stanek August 4, 2021 1:37 pm Reply

      Agree with you fully. Never have seen this many jobs vacant but no one to fill. The airport is a prime example of people wanting car rentals, taxi, shuttles, etc. and no one to help them. Restaurants could only seat half of capacity because they could not get servers. And you are correct, pre Covid (and pre free money), this never happened. Hope all rights itself soon.

  3. ron ogle August 5, 2021 3:02 am Reply

    why is this political? It is simple , most of us humans would rather golf,surf or do social media than work.Like most Government programs,little oversight.Keep help there for those in need and put the others back to work,

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