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Labor shortage is top of mind for Hawaiʻi Island business leaders

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Visitors have returned to Hawaiʻi Island and businesses there are eager to have them as customers, but there’s just one problem — not enough staff.

It’s a tough spot, as these are businesses that did manage to survive the economic impact of COVID-19 restrictions.

Ross Birch, executive director of the Island of Hawaiʻi Visitors Bureau, says there were quite a few business losses as a result of COVID restrictions, especially restaurants.

Now he says there are surviving restaurants that could be running at 100% capacity but can’t for lack of labor. Hotels, too, are often capping occupancy to the number of guests they can look after with available staff.

Where did all the labor go? Some 20 to 25% of the experienced hotel staff were at retirement age when Safe Travels closed down the hotels, and were offered early retirement packages when it was clear the hotels would be closing, with no revenue.

Wendy Laros, president & CEO of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce, says the only effective tool that chamber members have found is to increase wages significantly.

It’s a short-term solution, she said, that may cause problems down the line. Businesses have to raise their prices to afford the increased salaries.

There may come a point where customers, confronted with inflation on every front, simply choose not to buy.

Laros said this topic, labor, is the one that worries her chamber members the most.

Doug Simons, president-elect of the Hawaiʻi Island Chamber of Commerce, said the situation has made the increase to the minimum wage almost irrelevant. Businesses are already paying above that level to secure employees.

A. Kam Napier is the editor-in-chief of Pacific Business News.
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