By Stewart Yerton
The state’s largest private employer has lifted its Covid-19 vaccination requirement for more than 7,000 workers.
The announcement this week that Hawaii Airlines is lifting its Covid-19 vaccination requirement for its roughly 7,000 workers marked another step in a return to normality for the state’s tourism industry, and business in general. But tourism executives and business leaders say there’s still a ways to go for things to return completely to business as usual – at least as it was before the pandemic.
“I think we’re at this place where we’re getting back to this level of normalcy – of moving on,” said Sherry Menor-McNamara, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii.
So far, she said, Hawaiian seems to be the first major employer that has announced it was lifting an existing mandate for workers. But she said the pervasive fear of the coronavirus has ebbed.
“I think there’s just a general sense that people are more relaxed about it,” she said.
Ray Vara, president and chief executive of the state’s hospital giant Hawaii Pacific Health, agreed. Although Vara said the company isn’t considering lifting its vaccine mandate for doctors, nurses and other health care workers, he said other employers will likely follow Hawaiian’s lead.
“I think we are at a point where companies outside of health care are going to make that decision,” he said.
For Hawaiian, the announcement means that effective Oct. 1, some 7,053 current employees won’t have to be vaccinated to work for the carrier, which is Hawaii’s dominant airline and largest private employer.
It also means some 200 workers who chose to go on unpaid leave rather than be vaccinated will be able to return to the company without getting vaccines or going through the hiring process for new employees, said Alex Da Silva, a Hawaiian spokesman. Workers who resigned or were terminated because they refused to be vaccinated – which numbered fewer than 100 — can apply to return, he said.
“Things have clearly changed from when we implemented our requirement” in 2021, Peter Ingram, Hawaiian’s president and chief executive, said in a statement. He cited reduced risk due to high vaccination rates and infection-induced immunity, virus variants that cause less severe disease, new therapies to treat the illness and revised guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Kekoa McClellan, a Hawaii spokesman for the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said he has not heard of any hotel company lifting a vaccine mandate put in place in response to the pandemic.
Protecting workers and guests has always been a paramount concern for hotel managers, McClellan said. However, he said there was never a monolithic policy that all companies followed concerning vaccinations for employees and guests.
Still, one thing seems certain: the tourism industry – including hotels and airlines – will need more workers as the industry rebounds. International travel still hasn’t come back to prepandemic levels, and neither has lucrative group business. And the hotels are stepping up a campaign to fill about 500 openings.
“If you need a job, we can probably place you into a job you’ll like in a place you want to work,” he said.
Hawaiian Airlines also is looking to grow. The company is preparing to bring on a long-awaited fleet of 10 new Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” passenger jets, Da Silva said, and each will need additional crew and staff to operate and maintain the plane.
“We’re recruiting aggressively for positions across the company,” he said.
Not everyone was satisfied with Hawaiian’s announcement. Jim Hochberg is a Honolulu lawyer who represented seven Hawaiian workers who opposed the mandate. Some went on leave, while others lost their jobs, he said. A federal judge in Honolulu dismissed the suit, which is on appeal to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Even though the workers who took leave can go back to work, they still suffered penalties including lost wages, Hochberg said. It’s good Hawaiian lifted the policy his clients opposed, he said.
“However it does little to remedy what was done by this abandoned policy,” he said.