Big Island's Furloughed Tourism Workers Await Reopening

Jun 4, 2020

As businesses reopen on Hawaiʻi Island, unemployed hotel workers are waiting for their chance to get back to work. Several hotels are already taking reservations beginning July 1, and that has some in the industry cautiously optimistic.

For nearly a decade, Waimea resident Keisha Rodrigues would drive 40 miles round trip every day to her job at the Fairmont Orchid. She loves her job. It pays well and she gets to meet travelers from around the world. 

“I don't really travel much. We have a lot of repeat guests that do come down year after year. So, you know, hearing their stories. Sometimes they’ll show me pictures. I really like that part of it,” says Rodrigues.

But the 31-year-old mother of three has been on temporary leave since April when the hotel shut down because of COVID-19. It took more than a month for her to receive unemployment benefits, which was frustrating financially. Now, itʻs been two months and the family has adjusted. 

“For a little bit we just had to be comfortable with like a tighter belt. You know, we can't really go in eat out anymore or things like that,” says Rodrigues.

Over on the Hilo side of the island, Keaukaha resident Kinohi Neves has been on temporary leave from his job as a front desk clerk at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel.

He wā maikaʻi e hoʻomaʻamaʻa no ka wā hoʻokanakamakuaPono e mālama maikaʻi i ke kālā,” says Neves.

Neves joked that the experience was great practice for adulthood. He initially took the job to pay his way through college at University of Hawaii-Hilo. He graduated last month but says the job market is bleak. 

Ke ʻimi nei i kekahi ʻano hana ʻē aʻe. ʻOiai  ʻaʻole ʻike i ka wā e loaʻa ana nā hola hana ma ka hōkele,” says Neves, “Inā loaʻa nā hola, maikaʻi. Inā ʻaʻole, pono e holomua ma kekahi ʻano.

Neves says he’s searching for a job outside tourism because he’s not sure when he’ll be given any hours at the hotel. If he gets hours, he’ll return. If not, he still needs to find a job. 

Neves and Rodrigues are just two of the estimated 30,000 workers in the Big Islandʻs visitor industry awaiting news of tourism reopening on the island.

“I think tourism is going to look very different than what it does today,” says Waimea Councilman Tim Richards. 

He says the coronavirus closures while necessary for public health reasons devastated the Big Island economy. 

“Now, I know that the resorts have done everything they can to keep their employees on health care, which is costing them millions a month. And they've done that because they're trying to take care of the people,” says Richards. “But without an income stream for these resorts, if we don't get them back open, I fear we're going to lose some of them for good.”

Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas says the pandemic helped highlight Hawaiʻi Countyʻs dependence on tourism. 

“I mean, this has been a topic of conversation for decades, that we have an overreliance on tourism as an industry and that the goal [is] to diversify. And under these circumstances, it's becoming more, you know, we have to,” says Villegas.

Hawaiʻi County reported a 24 percent unemployment rate for the month of April. That’s more than 20,000 residents out of work.