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Labor Day amid COVID-19

AFor the past 126 years in America, the first Monday of September has been celebrated as Labor Day.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor website, the federal holiday is “a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.”

Early this year, Maui’s unemployment rate stood at a minuscule 2.5 percent. Even without accounting for the many folks working two and three jobs, that is a very busy labor force.

And then COVID-19 swept the globe. Maui lost 22,000 jobs and posted a second-quarter unemployment rate of 30.4 percent. With no tourists to cater to and residents obeying orders to either “stay at home” or be “safer at home,” the jobs dried up.

While a few people have gotten back to work, the pandemic continues to sideline an army of talented, hardworking men and women. During the Great Depression, the national unemployment rate peaked in 1933 at 25.6 percent. Two years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt started the Works Progress Administration. The employment and infrastructure program lasted eight years and put 8.5 million people to work.

The WPA’s biggest project, the Tennessee Valley Authority, built dams and waterworks to protect and rejuvenate the impoverished Tennessee Valley. Camp David was built, as was the on-ramp for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The Federal Project Number One employed writers, artists, musicians, actors and directors to stave off some of the Depression’s worst effects. They recorded histories and gave nearly a quarter-million performances across the country.

Maui benefited from several WPA projects including a sidewalk in Makawao that is still in use. You can see WPA stamped in the cement outside Komoda Store & Bakery.

In an ideal world, the state and county would find ways to tap the energy and know-how of our idled island workers. Admittedly, instituting such a large-scale program during the height of a pandemic may not be feasible. The logistics of running work gangs and services while maintaining social distancing and proper sanitary protocols would be a monumental challenge. Safety and liability would also be factors.

Just because it would be hard, doesn’t mean a scaled-down WPA-like program for Maui is not worth exploring. An upcoming event that could provide a blueprint for marshaling a volunteer army is Malama Maui Nui’s annual Get the Drift and Bag It. The annual cleanup campaign scheduled for Sept. 19 to Oct. 3 is inviting individuals and “quaranteams” to sign up at malamamauinui.org/getthedrift.

Just as Maui is lucky to have volunteers willing to turn out to help the environment, it is also blessed with a vital, ready-to-go labor force. Happy Labor Day.

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