This OpEd was first published in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Oct 2, 2019. I have the privilege of working with various nonprofits on issues of community well-being. These nonprofits are doing courageous work on shoestring budgets, filling the potholes in the landscape of public services caused by the delinquency of elected officials who appear hard of hearing, and apparently have vision problems as well: They are unable to see the human suffering writ large on our sidewalks. As a businesswoman who has managed small businesses, I have known the stress of meeting payroll and rent every month. That experience has only reinforced the belief that while businesses need to be profitable, they also have a moral obligation to make sure that those on the lower rungs of the payroll are paid fairly, and can afford basic needs: food, shelter, clothing, medical attention. The people who helped build the business and keep it running are not burdens to be shed at the slightest hint of a downturn to improve profits for shareholders. When even as conservative a body as the Business Roundtable, under Jamie Dimon, joined by 181 fellow business leaders, recognizes this, Hawaii legislators have to help voters understand why they do not see these obvious realities, especially when they are sitting on state data that tells them that in plain terms. If they do not act, others are prepared to.
Do legislators feel ‘fierce urgency of now’?
OK. So, yes. We are all frustrated. Government isn’t working the way it should. Not in Washington, D,C. Not in Hawaii. Not at the level of state, county or city. That’s how over 60% of the people feel, according to the Star- Advertiser’s Hawaii Poll.
But in these deeply disquieting times we can insist on optimism. Let’s insist that our elected representatives pick up exactly where they left off on critical bills they failed to pass for no good reason after the measures had made their way through multiple committees and umpteen hearings. Let’s insist that legislators pass them as soon as they re-convene in January. “Never happens,” say the veterans of past legislative sessions.
But these are far from ordinary times. There isn’t enough affordable housing for ordinary workers, yet $35 million penthouses are being dangled before foreign buyers. This is beyond obscene.
Imagine if this supposedly blue state actually passed a living wage, actually acted on a Democratic priority? Stranger things have happened. Would anyone have imagined that Jamie Dimon, speaking for the Business Roundtable, would talk about needing to compensate employees fairly so they could live lives with meaning and dignity? And yet he just did.
Will our Hawaii Business Roundtable follow suit? Will the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce acknowledge that representing business owners cannot mean opposing a living wage for the workers who keep those businesses going? If business owners deserve to reap a profit, workers surely deserve wages that allow them to afford the bare basics.
The Chamber and business owners can afford the luxury of lamenting the need to appear at hearings to argue against paying a living wage. But the very people who desperately need a living wage are unable to advocate for themselves because they are too busy running from one low-paying job to another.
This year there was such a chorus of voices from all quarters — mental health experts, doctors, teachers, clergy, students, nonprofits providing social services, enlightened small businesses, media executives, Democratic Party leaders, past and present — that it looked as if we might actually enact a living wage.
Yet, in the face of the state’s own data telling them that people in Hawaii need to make at least $17 an hour to simply survive, our elected representatives dropped the ball.
The representatives whose jobs depend on the votes of ordinary people were fine with letting ordinary working people — families, including children and the elderly and the ill — fend for themselves. And if that means camping on the sidewalks of this beautiful city, legislators apparently said, “so be it.”
But people are watching. The Hawaii Poll tells us that most people believe, not what government says, but what their eyes see: houselessness is growing.
House Speaker Scott Saiki can address this loss of confidence in government by picking the bill up right where he dropped it, and getting it across the finish line.
It is the second year of a biennium. Therefore, in a two-year session any bill introduced in the first (odd-numbered) year that has not passed may be picked up in the second year at the point where it was stopped in its tracks. The fact that it is rarely done is no excuse for not doing it. Certainly not in this time of crisis.
Legislators can spare everyone the circus and cost of multiple hearings, and simply make the living wage bill their first order of business in January. That just might begin to restore faith in a system that the Hawaii Poll tells us has failed too many people on too many fronts.