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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Aston takes over hotel, rehires only 20 workers

By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer

Aston Hotels & Resorts will take over the Hawaiian Waikiki Beach Hotel on Sunday with a reduced staff and will begin a $30 million renovation of the 714-room property on Kalakaua Avenue.

The work force at the hotel will be cut back from 274 to about 100, including only about 20 current workers, according to employees, union officials and Aston.

Aston is assuming management of the hotel for New York-based financial services holding company Leucadia National Corp., which earlier this month acquired the hotel from Otaka Inc. at a foreclosure auction after purchasing the property's mortgage.

The renovation, to be done in phases, is scheduled for completion in spring. It will be a complete overhaul intended to reposition the hotel from an economy-class to mid-priced property. The hotel will be renamed the Aston Waikiki Beach Hotel.

While the upgrade and new operator will be good for visitors and tourism in Waikiki, many longtime workers — some who have been with the hotel for more than 20 years — will face unemployment or new jobs with no seniority.

"It's a drastic change," said Wayne Chung, a bellman who has worked at the hotel 23 years and is one of the few Hawaiian Waikiki employees hired by Aston.

"We've been together so many years," he said. "It's hard to see everybody going to have to do their own thing now, and I'm going to stay on property. All our buddies we knew from young time ... we're going to break up."

In April, Otaka Inc. notified all employees of the Hawaiian Waikiki that because of the foreclosure, their employment would be terminated Saturday.

Kelvin Bloom, Aston's chief operating officer, said the company interviewed more than 500 people, including the majority of existing employees, for jobs at the hotel.

"Those that we felt might be the best fit for where we will be taking the hotel ,we've hired," he said.

But some, like 23-year Hawaiian Waikiki employee Claudette Watanabe, who works in the hotel's head pantry, didn't reapply because they said they were told no positions were open in their department.

"It's sad. It really is sad because we've been here so long and they just do this to us," she said. "In some ways I'm upset that it had to come to this."

Bloom said that because of the renovations, portions of the hotel, including the restaurant, will be closed. Once the work is complete, Aston will hire more people. "The count will definitely go up," he said.

Andy Young, a bellman who has worked for the hotel for about 20 years and had one interview with Aston, said he did not expect to be hired because Aston is almost entirely a nonunion company.

About 220 Hawaiian Waikiki employees were represented by Local 142 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Ray Camacho, O'ahu division director for the union, said Aston's hiring of fewer than one in 10 Hawaiian Waikiki employees is "outrageous."

Young said that after Saturday, he will be taking a "small vacation without pay" then begin looking for another job after a couple of weeks. Financially, he's all right because his wife works. But for some others, the loss presents potential hardship.

"We've bought homes, we've got mortgages, we've got kids going to college," said Watanabe, who has three children aged 12, 17 and 19.

Watanabe, who will be searching for a position in the food service industry, said it will be difficult to find a job with comparable pay, especially because she loses 23 years of seniority. "It's like starting all over again," she said.

Severance and vacation pay are expected to be paid to departing employees, though how much is still being disputed in court. The union estimates that employees are due $2.3 million in accrued vacation pay and severance. If a settlement cannot be reached, a judge is expected to rule as early as next week.

City Councilman Duke Bainum, who represents the Waikiki area and introduced a resolution urging Leucadia to rehire Hawaiian Waikiki employees at current wage and benefit levels, said if the new owner through Aston is rehiring fewer than one in 10 Hawaiian Waikiki employees, that would be dismal.

"We expect people to be good corporate citizens and these people are flunking Hawai'i corporate citizenship," he said. "I hope they reconsider."