Maui County population could decline with job losses

Pandemic-induced unemployment on Maui, Kauai makes it hard to stay

A chart from the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization shows that Maui and Kauai suffered the largest percent decline in jobs across most major sectors during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As a result, Maui may suffer the largest population loss in the state, according to UHERO Executive Director Carl Bonham. UHERO graphic

With Maui suffering some of the worst pandemic-induced job losses in the state, one of Hawaii’s top economists is predicting the Valley Isle will also be hardest hit in 2020 population decline as people move away for better work opportunities.

“The biggest declines in population have been on Oahu (since 2016) and yet with the pandemic, I expect that that Maui got hit very hard in 2020,” said University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization Executive Director Carl Bonham, adding that 2020 population estimates for the counties are not yet complete.

Maui and Kauai lost more than 20 percent of their jobs last year — the highest in the state, according to UHERO data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, people have been relocating, Bonham said.

“For Kauai and Maui, where you saw over 20 percent job losses, for those workers who were working in restaurants or hotels or teaching surf lessons or whatever they were doing related to the tourism industry, who don’t have local family, or who were transplants — it’s really hard to live in the state of Hawaii, even with the unemployment benefits,” Bonham said.

Maui suffered most among all counties for nonfarm jobs, which were down about 25 percent; transportation and utility, down 33 percent; and accommodation and food service jobs, down 45 percent, according to UHERO data.

Maui matched Oahu in retail trade decline at 16 percent — the worst in the state. Maui also matched Oahu with a health care job decline of 4 percent, third lowest in the state. It matched Hawaii island in construction decline at 5 percent, second lowest.

Largely felt by Oahu, Hawaii’s population decline began in 2016, Bonham said. And the state’s numbers won’t return to 2016 levels any time this decade, assuming birth rates don’t suddenly reverse, he noted.

People who are moving to the Mainland for jobs will likely stay there because the nation’s economy is outperforming Hawaii’s economy in terms of job growth and the types of jobs created.

“People are choosing where to live based on all of the amenities, not just the surf and the beaches, also the jobs, the housing, etc., and so long as it’s easier to find a good job on the Mainland, it’s going to be hard for in-migration to be started back up again,” Bonham said.

The economist said housing costs, climate, culture and other factors play a role in the decision to move from Hawaii. But the job market in recent years is the biggest determinant in luring people away from the Aloha State.

“The U.S. economy was producing jobs at a much faster clip,” he said.

While Hawaii’s pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 2 percent was comparable to the U.S. overall rate of 3 or 3.5 percent, it made sense for many to move away given the cost of living and other opportunities.

“Essentially you could pick almost anyplace you wanted to live on the continent, and it would have a job market that was probably producing better jobs than in Hawaii,” Bonham said. “So once you add in the cost differential, it becomes a much easier decision.”

Overall, Hawaii saw the largest percentage of payroll job losses in the country in 2020.

The state saw double or triple the percentage declines of the nation overall in sectors such as accommodations and food, transportation and utilities, real estate and rental, manufacturing and retail trade, according to UHERO data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hawaii trailed the country overall in percentage declines in other job sectors of state and local government, health and social assistance, construction and finance insurance.

Bonham spoke during a Hawaii Economic Association event on Thursday. For more information on UHERO data, visit uhero.hawaii.edu.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper?


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today