In Malama Pono

 By Liz Ho, Malcolm Lutu and Christian Fern 

Hawaii’s public employee unions strongly support COVID-19 vaccinations. However, we do not support the emergency proclamation’s requirement to show proof of vaccination or be subject to testing. Gov. David Ige’s recent announcement leaves us perplexed about how the policy will work. We also object to last week’s announcement because he is setting a precedent for employers – public and private – to act unilaterally on decisions that are critical to the health and welfare of employees. 

We believe in the scientific research that shows COVID-19 vaccines are very effective at reducing the risk of getting and spreading the disease. We also know that we need a large majority of the population to get vaccinated for life to return to normal. We know that each new vaccinated person makes a workplace much safer. For our members who serve the public, often with face-to-face contact, this is not just a matter of personal safety, but also a matter of keeping our community safe. 

For all these reasons, we strongly encourage public employees and all residents to get vaccinated, and we have taken many steps to support this process since the vaccines became available. Safe workplaces, healthy families, and making individual sacrifices for the good of all are three values at the very core of unions. We stand for those things more than ever during this crisis. 

There is another value at our core. We believe employers, whether in the public or private sector, cannot be free to act as dictators over their employees no matter what the reason. In a true democracy, workers must have shared power, especially when it comes to policies that affect their bodies, their livelihoods, and their beliefs. Consultation and negotiation between employers and employees are crucial. 

Weeks ago, knowing that COVID-19’s delta variant posed a dangerous new threat, we reached out to the governor and asked him to have a dialogue about vaccines. We were met with silence. That is until the governor made his newest proclamation and he was unable to answer questions on the specifics to explain how this mandate would work. 

COVID-19 is a community-wide crisis. We need strong leadership and clear communication. Instead, confusing messages, shifting policies, and half-baked unilateral decisions are making this bad situation worse. Every member of the public knows this. 

There is a better way. Employers in the private sector like The Queen’s Medical Center and in other states like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy are working with unions and employees to design and implement mandatory vaccine policies. What we are asking for is simple: Sit with the employee unions to negotiate a collaborative agreement for this policy. This means working out the complex details with the stakeholders before making more confusing announcements. For example: who pays for testing, what kinds of tests are acceptable, what about working remotely, what are acceptable reasons for not getting vaccinated, what are the consequences for not being vaccinated? No one wants to live in a world where one person can make all those decisions without even hearing from the people who will be affected, let alone working together on a solution that is fair and effective. 

As representatives of the public employees, we seek to work collaboratively with the governor and mayors on policies that impact working conditions and fight this pandemic together. We cannot stand by and have ongoing confusion. 

The leaders have an obligation to come to the table because it’s the law. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do, not just for public employees, but also for the benefit of all the people of Hawaii. 

Liz Ho is administrator of United Public Workers (UPW); Malcolm Lutu is president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO); and Christian Fern is executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA). Co-contributors to this commentary were Bobby Lee, president, Hawaii Fire Fighters Association (HFFA); Randy Perreira, executive director, Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA); and Osa Tui, president, Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA). 

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Lynne Wilkens for Employee Retirement Systems board.