Hawaii Gas strike forcing several businesses to close

Jun. 9—The ongoing Hawaii Gas strike is beginning to take its toll on local businesses that are being forced to close because of interrupted service.

More than a handful of businesses, mostly restaurants on Hawaii Island, no longer have gas to operate their restaurants and have been forced to shut down until delivery trucks come to refill the propane tanks they rely on to cook food.


On Wednesday after­noon at Kona Commons in Kailua-Kona, four restaurants that share a propane tank abruptly ran out of gas and have been waiting for a refill from Hawaii Gas before they can resume operations.

“We just ran out of gas in the middle of freaking serv­ice. It was like 3 (p.m.) and we were slammed,” said Jeff Carzino, who owns the restaurant Ultimate Burger with his wife. “We had 10 orders on the board at the moment the gas went out.”

Daiichi Ramen, Genki Sushi and Panda Express were the other restaurants at the shopping center that have stopped operations because of the gas shortage.

Hawaii Gas reportedly failed to deliver gas to Kona Commons when it said it would.

“Our property manager called Hawaii Gas today and received confirmation of a delivery around noon,” a Kona Commons spokesperson said in an email at around 5 p.m. Thursday, adding that the delivery hadn’t been made.

The interrupted gas serv­ice is being attributed to the ongoing strike between the utility and more than 200 unionized employees. After weeks of contract negotiations, the workers, with Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers, Local 996, decided to strike against Hawaii Gas starting June 1 after they were offered a pay increase and medical costs that they found insufficient.

Hawaii Gas acknowledged the service interruptions.

In a statement it said, “We are aware there are a small number of businesses affected on the Big Island and we are working to refill their tanks as soon as possible. Hawai’i Gas is working closely with individual businesses on a case by case basis to find immediate solutions.”

While service from the state’s only franchised gas utility, which has 70,000 customers, didn’t appear to have caused any problems initially, the remaining supply in propane tanks that have kept businesses afloat are starting to empty.

Some 13 miles south of Kona Commons, in Captain Cook, the Manago Hotel has closed down its restaurant to preserve what’s left of its 1,000-gallon propane tank so that hotel guests can have hot water.

Similar to the shopping center, Hawaii Gas failed to deliver gas as scheduled, so the hotel has had to rely on whatever is in its propane tank on the premises.

The hotel’s tank was about 20% full as of Thursday afternoon, and the restaurant closure will significantly reduce the hotel’s propane use.

But it’s only a temporary solution.

“I checked the meter on the tank this morning, and it was low, so we had to come to the decision to close the restaurant,” said hotel manager Jaren Niimi. “Without the restaurant operating, it should last about a week. With the restaurant operating it’ll last about a day or two.”

Also, like Kona Commons, there isn’t much the hotel can do in the way of planning, because Hawaii Gas isn’t providing it with enough information.

“They weren’t able to give us a timeline or an explanation,” Niimi said. “On their website and social media, they said service won’t be interrupted, but that’s not true.”

Knowing for certain that gas won’t be delivered for a week is bad news, but many would rather know that than be told that the gas could come any day.

That’s the most frustrating part for many.

“Food’s a pain in the butt, and there’s just a lot of people tied to it all,” Carzino said. “Just not knowing what the plan is, that’s the hardest part, because then we can’t plan. … Do we open, do we not, what do we tell the employees, do we order food, do we not order food?”

In Pukalani on Maui, Serpico’s Pizzeria was closed for about a full day Wednesday before a Hawaii Gas truck delivered gas to its restaurant Thursday afternoon.

“I understand they’re short-staffed, but they couldn’t even give us a time frame, which made it really rough,” said manager Jared Monoogan after talking with the utility after the restaurant’s gas went out Wednesday.

The restaurant suddenly ran out of propane at around 12:30 p.m., causing some of the equipment to stop working.

“We were like, ‘Oh shoot, the pizza oven’s out.’ We basically had to shut down in the middle (of the day),” Monoogan said. “We had to turn away some of the business we had on the phone. Some of the diners that came in, luckily they were kind enough to switch to something that we could heat up with the little bit of heat we had left.”

Although other gas companies, like AmeriGas or Alii Gas, also can provide propane for restaurants, some of the restaurant managers and owners said they are prohibited from using them to fill on-site propane tanks made for Hawaii Gas.

The closure so far doesn’t appear to have hit any of the other islands. Larger facilities like some of the bigger hotels in Waikiki rely on underground pipes rather than delivery trucks and haven’t experienced a shortage of gas.

Many of the affected locations, however, are smaller businesses, and being closed for even a day is a major setback.

If the store is closed over the weekend, Carzino said he might have to donate thousands of dollars’ worth of ingredients that might still be fresh but would no longer be usable for the restaurant. That, in addition to the lost revenue during a summer weekend, would make for a tough weekend, he said.

At the beginning of the strike, Hawaii Gas had assured the public that basic gas service would not be interrupted and that only a few maintenance and installation services could be impacted. Nonunion employees, who are mostly managers, were being deployed to pick up the slack following the strike.

But Hawaii Gas said Thursday in a statement that it is “using temporary outside staffing to support customers during this time. These resources will not replace any local jobs but will ensure service delivery.”

Meanwhile, businesses are being asked to check their propane tanks and to not completely empty them, which could be dangerous.

“We have been in talks with Hawaii Gas, asking them what we should tell our members,” said Sheryl Matsuoka, executive director of the Hawaii Restaurant Association. “They said to let (HRA) members know to watch the gauge (on their tanks), and if they’re not sure what the level is, they need to stop.”

There haven’t been any significant updates on the contract negotiation between the utility and Hawaii Teamsters, although the utility said that the two sides met Saturday.

Hawaii Gas said in an email that another meeting between the parties is scheduled for today and that it is “encouraged to be back at the negotiating table.”

Hawaii Teamsters has not replied to multiple requests for comment from the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

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