COVID-19 work stoppage cost $3.4M: Most employees back at work after several months of paid leave

  • Jon Henricks

  • Aaron Chung

  • Harry Kim

Hawaii County’s first tumultuous months of the COVID-19 lockdown resulted in an estimated 141,850 lost hours of work from county employees, at a cost of $3.4 million in salaries.

But county taxpayers didn’t shoulder all of that burden when 1,128 of the county’s 2,800 employees stayed home because they were deemed nonessential, couldn’t find childcare, weren’t able to work from home or had other issues requiring them to take paid administrative leave.

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Some employees used vacation or sick time and the federal government paid for some of that expense, Mayor Harry Kim said Tuesday. The Family and Medical Leave Act reimburses the county for three-quarters of an employee’s pay under certain circumstances.

“Daycare centers and childcare centers closed overnight, the schools closed, all of a sudden senior family members couldn’t watch the children,” Kim said. “The virus caused all that to happen overnight and the government had to come up to the plate and provide help.”

The leave and salary numbers cover between March 24, when the emergency stay-at-home proclamations took effect, and June 30, the end of the budget year, and were provided by the county Finance Department to the newspaper pursuant to a public records request.

“My personal feeling is that public safety should be placed as the highest priority above all else. I think my fellow council members share that feeling,” said Council Chairman Aaron Chung. “Unfortunately, from an operational standpoint, we are in the frustrating situation of having to react to federal and state policies as well as to the actions of selfish people in the community.”

By the end of July, only eight employees countywide were on paid administrative leave related to COVID-19, according to the county Department of Human Resources. In all, 18 employees were on administrative leave.

“We try to adjust here and there and do the best that we can with the cards that are dealt to us,” Chung said. “We are reacting to a shifting situation.”

With COVID-19 cases rapidly increasing on the Big Island, that could change with little notice. Since Saturday, Hawaii Island has seen at least 44 new COVID-19 cases and emergency management officials worry people are letting their guard down, not following social distancing protocols or wearing masks when in public.

Kim recently tightened social gathering rules to a maximum of 10 people indoors or out, but he said he doesn’t want to issue stay-at-home orders. Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell did that Tuesday, instituting a two-week lockdown for all but essential workers and businesses after a month of coronavirus increases.

Kim said the county established a relationship early with Premier Medical Group that allows mass testing to identify outbreaks.

“I want to contain it and the best way to contain it is to do more testing,” Kim said. “We’re going to contain this. … I do not want to do what they call lockdown or stay at home.”

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Obviously, some professions make working at home easier than others. In the case of the county Clerk’s Office, a combination of employees working from home, staggered shifts and creating as safe a workplace as possible through physical distancing and sanitation allowed the work to go on.

“Everybody in our office was deemed intermittent and essential,” said County Clerk Jon Henricks. “Some people never missed a day. … We never missed a council meeting. … I think we learned a lot the first go-round and frankly I’m very proud of our individuals.”

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