Unemployment in Hawaii remains high — 9% through March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — despite a wide availability of jobs in the Islands about a year into the coronavirus pandemic.

Recently, the Hawaii Legislature passed a measure to allocate nearly half of the state’s $1.6 billion of American Rescue Plan Act funds toward repaying a $700 million federal loan taken out by the state to keep making UI payments to unemployed residents. The state also passed a stopgap measure in March to keep UI payments for businesses at a moderate schedule through 2022.

The funding allocation, for which Sherry Menor-McNamara is grateful, awaits Gov. David Ige‘s signature. However, the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii’s president and CEO told Pacific Business News recently that it won’t be a permanent solution to the problem.

Where do things stand right now with the payback of the $700 million loan?

The Legislature did include from the American Rescue Relief Plan, the $700-plus million loan that we took out for the UI fund, and they used some of the funds that were given to the state through that American Rescue Plan to pay off that loan.

So, that will significantly help businesses during this recovery period and we so appreciate the Legislature understanding the challenges businesses faced, and how an additional UI tax would have undermined recovery efforts for these businesses.

Will this be enough to keep the UI fund stocked going forward?

Right now businesses continue to pay into the UI fund. The concern is that, even though we are paying off this loan, we are not going to reach the level in the UI fund, based on this recovery period, to bring it to the level where the federal government requires it to be. Our concern is that we will continue to borrow monies from the feds to replenish the UI fund. That’s what we’re watching carefully.

Hopefully Congress will consider some type of bill to rectify the situation, because it’s not only Hawaii that’s facing this situation; it’s a number of other states that also need to borrow monies and who will need to continue to borrow monies to replenish the funds.

What do you think goes into the unemployment rate remaining around 9% even with jobs available?

We’ve definitely been hearing more and more from businesses that they’re having a hard time hiring, as well as bringing back employees. It’s something we’re definitely looking into now.

There could be a few reasons why employees are not returning, from the lack of child care, personal safety, as well as the plus-up , in terms of what they’re getting.

Of course, rebuilding a labor force after a global pandemic is not something any business owner has been through. … When restrictions are slowly being lifted, businesses need time to bring back the work force, retrain them, et cetera. So, the timing also has been a challenge.

I know the director of the also announced that she will be discussing the work-search requirement with the governor qualified benefits, because you may recall, pre-Covid, those who were laid off were required to search for work in order to get unemployment benefits. … That has not been reinstated yet.

That’s something we are discussing right now that needs to be reincorporated back as a requirement.

Any recommendations on helping employers get people back to work?

As more businesses open, we definitely need to see how we can address the labor shortage, in terms of people going back to work.

There’s other types of businesses that are hiring, and that’s why the Chamber launched, in partnership with Workforce Development Council and a number of other stakeholders, the HawaiiIsHiring.com website . Right now, there’s over 20,000 jobs available in different industries. And also, opportunities to upscale and retrain for jobs that are out there.

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