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

Sadness, surprise as layoffs sink in

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Benny Roldan, right, a 36-year-old forklift operator, was among about 17 people who were laid off from Del Monte on Monday. His 37-year-old wife, Nora, left, was also laid off from the company's Waiakamilo facility and now works in a nursing home. The two flank their son Jomar, 6.

Photos by JOAQUIN SIOPACK | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Leonel Leano, left, and Ruben Palilio talk about options after Del Monte. Leano, 37, anticipating the closure, also works at a hybrid corn operation.

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Del Monte worker Willy Tasani, a 51-year-old construction mechanic, hopes his work skills can be put to good use in another job. In January, he would have made 21 years with the company.

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Del Monte Fresh Produce pineapple workers last night took the news of the shutdown of operations and the loss of their jobs with a mixture of shock, melancholy and resignation.

But they also accepted their fates with the sort of "we'll move on" reaction one might expect from people who spend their days with their hands in dirt and machinery under the hot Kunia sun.

Leonel Leano, 37, said he was disappointed that the company had made the decision to close earlier than the deadline that had been announced previously.

"We were expecting it before, but it was supposed to be December 2008," said Leano, a truck driver for the past five years. "That's what everybody was hoping."

Leano has already made contingency plans. Besides working his full-time job at Del Monte, he has been putting in 40 hours a week "part-time" at a hybrid corn operation down the hill.

"It was kinda hard (on the family), but we had to because we knew this was going to shut down," he said, noting that about 20 Del Monte workers also have been doing the same thing. "We sleep only about four hours."

He makes $13.66 an hour at Del Monte, and about the same at his other job.

Leano and his wife, a caregiver, live in Wahiawa with two children, ages 15 and 10.

But he said he's most worried about some of the others who are losing their jobs. "I feel so bad for the old guys," he said. "They're going to be having a hard time finding jobs."

Leano, who left the Ilocos Norte region of the Philippines 11 years ago to work for the plantation, thought there was irony in the shutdown.

"That's kinda funny, yeah, because Del Monte came (to the Philippines) to hire us," he said.

The workers were told that the crop they had been tending since February would be left in the ground and maybe even uprooted and destroyed rather than harvested.

Asked if he was angry at that, Leano shrugged. "I feel bad, but I cannot do anything."

Benny Roldan, a 36-year-old forklift operator, was among about 17 people who were laid off on Monday. But even then, he said, company officials spoke about shutting down after the final harvest in 2008, and there was no hint that it would happen any sooner.

The family has gotten a double-whammy from Del Monte.

Roldan's wife, Nora, 37, was laid off from the company's Waiakamilo facility and now works in a nursing home. Both are from the Philippines and met here while working for the plantation.

The two and their boys, 11-year-old Marvin and 6-year-old Jomar, live in a plantation house that they rent for $222 a month.

"I'd like to keep the house," Benny Roldan said. He pleaded with Gov. Linda Lingle, other politicians and the companies involved to help their situation. "Hopefully, somebody will take it over. Especially the housing, I hope they keep the housing for us."

Roldan said he's not worried about getting a job, noting that he is taking a commercial driving class, which is being paid for by Del Monte. He hopes to graduate in January.

Willy Tasani, a 51-year-old construction mechanic, also said he believes his work skills can be put to good use at another job.

"Welding was my major," he said, adding that he got an associate's degree from Leeward Community College.

"I will use my skills to find a job," he said, adding that he has a commercial driver's license and mechanic skills.

Come January, Tasani would have put in 21 years at Del Monte.

"I started out in a hard job. May 9, 1985, I arrived here (from Ilocos Norte). And then I was a seasonal worker starting in August."

Tasani and his wife, a housekeeper at Pearl Harbor, own a house at Poamoho Camp, a place politicians and others have been trying to save for the plantation workers. The couple has two girls, one in community college and the other in intermediate school.

Tasani makes $18 an hour and his wife gets paid "not bad," he said.

"The thing I worry about is the people who get less experience," he said.

Froiland Madriaga, 43, a drip operator the past 10 years, said he was surprised by the shutdown and is not quite sure what he will do.

His main worry, he said, is whether he and his wife, a housekeeper at Schofield Barracks, will be able to to make their $1,800 monthly mortgage payment on the house they bought four years ago. "It's some big bucks," he said. "If they close, what ... am I going to do?"

Nonetheless, Madriaga was hopeful. "At least I know I can find a job," he said, noting that he is good with plants.

Madriaga and his wife, originally from Ilocos Norte, moved to Hawai'i 11 years ago from San Francisco where he was a maintenance man. Madriaga said he had no regrets working for the plantation or coming to Hawai'i.

"I like the weather," he said, managing a smile.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.