BY WAYNE CHARGUALAF
Journal Staff

The streets of Tumon, the center of Guam’s hospitality industry, remain empty in accordance with the governor’s executive order to limit business activity in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Hotels and restaurants have been hard hit by the pandemic and are struggling to keep a labor force.

Photo by Wayne Chargualaf

The economic realities of the coronavirus and the safety measures enacted to slow its spread continue to weigh heavily on one of the island’s most important sectors.

In late March, the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association reported to the Guam Department of Labor that out of more than 4,200 workers employed by 14 members that responded to a request for data, more than 3,200 workers have had their hours reduced, 911 have been furloughed and 109 have been laid off.

Hotels have been hardest hit, with all furloughed and laid off employees coming from that sector. Some restaurants have been able to avoid taking such measures so far, especially since takeout and delivery orders have remained available to the public.

There are gaps in the data, however, as 19 hotels and 17 restaurants did not respond to GHRA’s request. A total of nine hotel and five restaurants responded. Many GHRA member firms do business as multiple companies or have multiple locations.

“GHRA started collecting data about two months ago as part of an outreach to members to kind of guide them on some of the federal programs that would become available to them, and also to collect data because the Department of Labor has not been fully operational,” Mary P. Rhodes, president of GHRA, said. “The challenge with those numbers is they’re a bit old now. It was only based on callouts for data that were completed, so we weren’t able to get to the entire industry but we feel it is a good representation of what we’re seeing.”

Rhodes said that early on, a lot of GHRA members were using things like sick leave and personal time off to both retain employees and continue to pay them.

“All of those are things that have been done on the employer side so that their employees can avail themselves of those benefits in the meantime while they’re not operational,” Rhodes said. “Now that some federal programs have become available, employees that would have been laid off were furloughed, which means they will be brought back to work when business is resumed.”

Since DOL has begun the process of using the hireguam.com platform to accept employer registrations for federal pandemic assistance and collect data under a new rapid response program, GHRA has combined its data with data from other industry organizations on the island under Guam DOL.

“We basically stopped our project and expanded it to include the Guam Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce,” Rhodes said. Since then, the organizations have combined their membership lists and resources to create a more comprehensive picture of the state of the island’s entire labor market.

According to DOL, as of May 6 about 440 employers have registered on hireguam.com to acquire federal assistance for their employees under the Coronavirus Aid and Economic Security Act. DOL estimates about 38,000 Guam individuals are unemployed.

Although the CARES Act is the primary form of coronavirus-related federal assistance, many people are seeking more traditional forms such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly known as the food stamp program — Medicaid and the Medically Indigent Program.

Although the Guam Department of Public Health and Social Services does not track information related to the employment of its applicants, Theresa Arcangel, chief administrator of the Division of Public Welfare at the department, said, “There has definitely been an increase” since the start of limitations on business activity began in March.

Application for non-coronavirus-related public assistance hovered around 700 for the January and February and dipped down to 590 in March before jumping to more than 2,500 in April.

The governor said during several of her daily press conferences she is looking to ease restrictions on business activity if the island continues its trend of low numbers of positive cases of COVID-19. However, she has said the island could revert to restrictions, especially with experts warning of a second wave of positive cases later this year. She has also said that the island won’t lift all restrictions until either a vaccine is developed or there is strong evidence of herd immunity. Experts believe a vaccine won’t be developed for at least another year.

Until then, the island’s hospitality industry will have to find new ways to adapt and survive, to include reopening with limitations imposed on their operations to maintain social distancing protocols.

“For things like common areas, employee break rooms, entrances and exits, even down to bathrooms, where you might have to make them single use … there are a lot of those little things that businesses will have to adjust for,” Rhodes said. “And maybe this is just going to become the new normal.” mbj