The once-thriving Hawaii economy has become a casualty from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Adding further insult to injury, the contention around the state’s current plans to reopen the economy has left potential job opportunities uncertain, which is taking its toll on the Aloha State.

In September, the Hawaii Department of Labor and Industrial Relations announced that the total number of jobs has declined by 105,200 over this year alone, and the unemployment rate sits at 12.5%. Since the state’s economy is strongly anchored by tourism, which has pretty much ceased since March, these unemployed residents have few options as they look for work during this difficult time.

Unemployment assistance from the federal and state governments has helped some put food on the table — but that’s not a long-term solution, particularly as many want to go back to work. But the state can fix this.

First, Hawaii can lift burdensome regulations that leave many struggling because of the onerous local laws around occupational licensing. These licenses are a form of government regulation which are required to pursue a specific profession or vocation. Unfortunately, the Aloha State ranks as the nation’s worst when it comes to licensing laws, which are largely seen as an economic impediment rather than a boon. Consider that, as our state economy is struggling, Hawaii residents must have a license to professionally shampoo hair, trim a tree, repair a door, and, yes, even be a tour guide.

Sadly, for workers who want to return to employment now and must be frugal, these licenses are time-consuming and expensive. According to the Institute for Justice, Hawaii’s licensing laws for lower-income laborers require prospective workers to pay $438 in fees, complete 988 days of education and/or experience and pass about two exams. If workers are looking to start a new occupation in a hasty manner, they better think twice. Out-of-work residents will have to navigate through these regulations and constraints as they try to get back to work.

These unnecessary barriers mean the hardest-hit workers, like those in the tourism industry, cannot easily turn to new vocations and limit unemployed residents’ options. Given these realities, leaders need to look at solutions to help people get back on their feet, and not further encumber the underprivileged with laws that make it harder to obtain employment.

Lawmakers can restore Hawaii’s pride as a state that is a friend to workers by enacting a few much-needed reforms. They can remove fees for many lower-income licenses, and they can also responsibly lower the required education and experience levels for some of these occupations so that workers can more easily provide for their families.

Lastly, Hawaii should consider adopting universal license recognition. This would require Hawaii’s licensing boards to recognize out-of-state licensing in good standing of those who wish to work here. Universal recognition could also help encourage those who have moved away to return, and it would allow new residents, like military spouses, to find work sooner rather than later.

The people of Hawaii are struggling. They are hoping local leaders can chart a course for the state to come out of this economic morass. So, if lawmakers want to get people back to work quickly as the state reopens, they should look no further than reforming present occupational licensing laws as soon as possible.

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