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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 18, 2006

Workers will get help finding jobs

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

In February, general manager Ed Littleton told Del Monte's hourly pineapple workers that Del Monte Fresh Produce would cease planting pineapple at its Kunia plantation.

ADVERTISER LIBRARY PHOTO | Feb. 1, 2006

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Del Monte Fresh Produce employees will be losing their jobs at a time when Hawai'i's employers are desperately looking for workers, but many plantation workers still face considerable hurdles.

A majority of the workers are in their 40s and 50s and haven't had to look for a job in years, according to the workers' union, ILWU Local 142. For many plantation workers, English is a second language. Many will need training just to apply for new jobs.

"We're in a good market right now," said ILWU Local 142 social worker Joanne Kealoha. "But it's still not easy to be laid off."

With Hawai'i's 2.5 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in the country, union and government officials are hopeful that displaced Del Monte workers will be absorbed into the local job market.

State labor and agriculture officials yesterday said they will help displaced workers find other jobs and noted that many other local farms also need workers. Some Del Monte employees in nonagricultural positions ranging from white-collar jobs to truck drivers also likely will be able to find similar work in other companies and industries.

Still, yesterday's announcement by Del Monte that it will close its Hawai'i operations immediately caught the company's 551 workers as well as government officials off guard. Del Monte said in February it would shut down at the end of 2008, and up until yesterday everyone believed they had nearly two years to prepare for the influx of displaced workers.

Now that countdown has shrunk to two months.

IMPROVING SKILLS

Some workers have been making an effort to improve their skills for other jobs by working toward their competency-based diplomas and attending English as a Second Language classes, Kealoha said. Some have also signed up for Leeward Community College courses paid for through the federal Rural Development Program.

But most workers have done little to prepare, figuring they didn't need to worry about getting another job for another two years.

A career fair in August to educate Del Monte workers about opportunities outside the plantation drew only about 30 workers.

"All of this has been going on," Kealoha said, "but only a few people have taken advantage of all this because the majority of people were thinking it was going to be 2008 so 'we don't have to worry.' "

Del Monte officials "have repeatedly told us they were going to stay until the end (of 2008)," she said. "The workers clearly believed them. They thought that they had until 2008 to plan for losing their jobs, but now they have only 60 days. So it's a real blow to them.

"They're kind of in shock that it was done so suddenly. And they're also in shock that the company would do that now. The timing really wasn't good. The holidays are coming up, and they're all going to be out of a job."

State Department of Labor and Industrial Relations officials will contact and meet with management and the union on Monday, said James Hardway, assistant to department director Nelson Befitel.

He said a "rapid response team" will survey workers to evaluate their job skills and determine how many people need training and job placement assistance. Once that information is collected, the city will apply for a National Emergency Grant with the U.S. Department of Labor. The amount of funding, which would come from Workforce Investment Act funds, will depend on the number of people need services, he said.

"Hopefully we'll be able to absorb a lot of these guys," Hardway said. "We're in contact with a lot of farmers who need labor."

State labor officials are also working with the state Department of Agriculture to identify farms that need workers.

"I think given our economy and our very low unemployment, there should be good prospects for these people," said state Department of Agriculture director Sandra Lee Kunimoto.

FEDERAL ASSISTANCE

The ILWU recently applied for "trade adjustment assistance" with the U.S. Department of Labor, Kealoha said. The assistance would provide federal funding for programs like training and medical premium payment assistance.

The union also has been working with state labor officials to help a couple dozen Del Monte workers who are being laid off this month and recently had a workshop for them on job search skills.

"We've been talking with the department for quite a while now about what we need to do," Kealoha said. "We didn't expect it to be this soon, but from this past session we found out that there are a lot of them that need a whole lot of services. ... We're trying to look at developing some orientations for them in smaller groups so that they can be a little more familiar with what they need to do to apply for jobs."

The union has also been talking with other industries, which seem to be interested. The career fair in August featured representatives from some large hotels, the construction industry and the healthcare industry, Kealoha said. There likely will be another job fair soon with employers from those and other industries, she said.

"A lot of them are looking for workers," Kealoha said. "The skill level may not be what all of them want, but I think there's a lot of entry-level (positions). So we're hopeful that people will be able to find jobs or get into training to get new careers."

The visitor industry, for one, may absorb at least some of the displaced workers.

"Every segment of the visitor industry is looking for employees," said state tourism liaison Marsha Wienert, adding that work will probably also be available at golf courses. "There are help-wanted signs up everywhere. ... So if any of them have any desire to enter into any of those types of businesses, they would be welcomed with open arms."

Staff writer Greg Wiles contributed to this report.

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com.