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AFSCME members in Hawaii are already benefitting from the American Rescue Plan

Photo credit: Getty
AFSCME members in Hawaii are already benefitting from the American Rescue Plan
AFSCME members in Hawaii are already benefitting from the American Rescue Plan
Billy Ortiz

The coronavirus pandemic hit the economy of Hawaii like a tsunami.

While in 2019, some 30,000 people – mostly tourists – arrived in the state every day, that number dropped to below 500 during the initial lockdowns in the spring of 2020. Soon, the unemployment rate surged to nearly 24%. Even today, at 9.2%, Hawaii’s unemployment rate is the highest in the nation.

Billy Ortiz, a machine operator at Kauai Community College and member of United Public Workers (UPW)/AFSCME Local 646, experienced this quasi-natural disaster firsthand. His wife, an airline employee, was furloughed and has yet to return to work.

“In unstable times like these it’s good to be part of bargaining unit, it’s good to be part of a union,” Ortiz reflects. “My wife and I were lucky we had some savings to fill in the gaps with. … Being part of a union has helped a lot.”

For working families across the country, relief is finally coming through the American Rescue Plan, a landmark law made possible by workers such as Ortiz and their unions. Many AFSCME members in Hawaii are already seeing the benefits of the ARP.

For one thing, the potential furloughs and layoffs of state employees announced by Gov. David Ige are now off the table. They are no longer necessary. The reason is the ARP, which contains nearly $700 billion to support public services across the country, including $350 billion in flexible aid to state and local governments.

Lorena Kashiwamura, a nutrition assistant who serves women who are pregnant and breastfeeding for the first time, as well as infants and children up to 5 years of age, said the furloughs would have affected the general population.

“We would have had to shut down a day or scale back the number of people that we service because staffing wouldn’t be there,” said Kashiwamura, who works for the state’s Department of Health and is also a member of UPW. “And certainly, you don’t want to overload the people who are there working. The mothers and kids who need help pay the price of those decreased services.”

Leon Guerrero, a plant quarantine inspector/microorganism specialist with the Hawaii Department of Agriculture and member of the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA)/AFSCME Local 152, recalled the negative impact that furloughs and layoffs had in 2009.

“With fewer inspectors and resources, there would be delays in daily inspections, issuing permits, investigations and pest calls around the state, and with that the potential for invasive species to slip through,” he said. “The reduction in services and workers would greatly impact various industries and the public, from importers and vendors to transportation companies and consumers.”

The ARP will provide much needed support to Kathleen Merriam and her co-workers. Merriam, an HGEA member, is a mental health supervisor for the Hawaii State Department of Health.

“Through this pandemic, we’ve remained committed to serving our community because a crisis like this often increases symptoms of mental health disorders and substance use conditions, and we need to help those who may be even more vulnerable during this time,” Merriam said. “Funding from the American Rescue Plan will allow us to maintain operations and continue providing vital services and treatment for those in our community who need it most.”

In addition to the state and local aid, the ARP contains direct assistance to individuals and working families in the form of $1,400 checks, child care subsidies, expansion of unemployment benefits, extension of health care insurance for the unemployed, and more.

Kenneth "Kalani" DeCoito, a head custodian at an elementary school and a UPW member, says being part of a strong union has made a huge difference in getting through the pandemic.

“A lot of people don’t realize all that AFSCME does to fight for us, both here in Hawaii, but also at the federal level. It’s far away,” he says. “Our people wake up every day and think about their day-to-day life, but AFSCME is fighting for them even when they don’t realize it.”


(Contributing: HGEA)

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