Initial unemployment claims on the rise

  • A few cars are parked outside Big Island Candies on Monday in Hilo. (Kelsey Walling/Hawaii Tribune-Herald)

Initial unemployment claims are again on the rise statewide, a University of Hawaii economist on Monday told the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness.

Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, said a “trough” in weekly initial unemployment claims happened the week of Aug. 1.

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“We were at about 5,000 claims. And the number of claims has increased almost 50% since then,” Bonham told the legislators and health and business community leaders on the committee. “So we’re now up to 7,500 initial claims in last Thursday’s data. So there’s been a backsliding — additional layoffs and additional people dealing with … getting unemployment benefits. And, as we know, smaller benefits (are being offered) than was true back in the middle of the crisis, when we had the ($600 weekly) step-up benefits from the feds.”

According to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, initial unemployment claims statewide — which hit a weekly high of 53,113 claims the week of April 4 — bottomed at 5,069 the week of Aug. 1.

Since then, new weekly jobless claims in Hawaii numbered 5,314 on Aug. 8, 5,537 on Aug. 15, 5,795 on Aug. 22, 6,782 on Aug. 29, and 7,504 on Sept 5, the last week for which the numbers are available.

In the past two months on the Big Island, new claims have fluctuated between a high on Aug. 8 of 738 filings, one more claim than on Sept. 5, and a low of 645 on Aug. 22.

“Hours worked have been declining; payrolls are on the decline. All of that is consistent with increasing unemployment claims,” Bonham said, who then shifted his focus to the state’s economy in general, using an index posted on the Covid Pau website. “We had recovered about 37% of our activity by June, and we’re now back at 19%. So we’ve lost roughly half of our recovery since the end of June.”

Bonham said there was “a little bit of good news,” however, in the shared goal of reopening the state to unrestricted tourism and lifting the economy, saying the state’s coronavirus positivity rate is down, again using a statistic from the COVID-19 dashboard.

Dr. Mark Mugiishi, president and CEO of Hawaii Medical Service Association, said the coronavirus positivity rate of 2.2% is “not as good as it looks,” adding that the 40,000-plus people tested as part of a federal surge-testing initiative skews the numbers on “a downward bias.”

Mugiishi said the World Health Organization says anything lower than 5% is “good” and anything above 5% as “not good.”

“The WHO recommendations of 5% typically refer to issue-generated testing. In other words, it’s people who feel sick or work in close contact with somebody (who tested positive), so they go and get a test,” Mugiishi said. “For those people, if it’s less than 5%, it’s good. Surge testing is more of a population base — what’s the prevalence of virus is your whole population?

“So when we didn’t have surge testing, and we were, you know, doing issue-generated testing … when … our economic status was good in May and June, and peaking in July, we were down in the 2% or 3% (range) for issue-generated testing. And when we had this latest surge, we went all the way up to, like, 12, 13, 14% positivity rate. And now we’re down to about 6, if you take the surge testing out. So we’re getting back to where we need to be … but we still want to keep improving and getting better.”

Raymond Vara, president and CEO of Hawaii Pacific Health, the parent company of several private hospitals including Straub Medical Center and Kapi‘olani Medical Center for Women and Children, said he interprets the low numbers of infection found in the surge testing, which, so far, has been only on Oahu — where a stay-at-home order is in effect — to mean there is not “a significant prevalence of asymptomatic spread of the virus in the community.” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said Monday more than 60,000 participated in surge testing over a two-week period.

Vara warned, however, that the economy and the community’s public health issues are “closely knit … together.”

“I think, oftentimes, what we hear in discussions — especially around when restrictions have been put in place or not — it tends to lead toward it’s either/or, when, in fact, I don’t think there’s an either/or,” Vara said.

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“The spread of the virus will define the community on a going-forward basis, if we don’t have effective control measures in place.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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