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The Honolulu Advertiser
Updated at 2:54 p.m., Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Laid-off Maui workers find job fair 'very helpful'

By ILIMA LOOMIS
The Maui News

LAHAINA Farm workers facing layoffs from Maui Land & Pineapple Co. said Monday they were encouraged by the number of available jobs, and hoped to find work that wouldn't require a long commute, the Maui News reported today.

The employees attended a meeting at the Lahaina Civic Center on Monday organized by the state Rapid Response Team, along with the county and ML&P. The laid-off workers learned about how to apply for unemployment insurance, workforce training and other services like health insurance, childcare and even mental health programs. At the job fair that followed, they had an opportunity to speak with employers who had immediate job openings.

"I see a lot of companies," said Pete Cordero, a preventive maintenance worker with 30 years at ML&P. "I thought there was not that much, but it's good."

He called the informational meeting "very helpful."

Cordero said he hoped to find something similar to his old job, doing maintenance or working with heavy machinery, but he said the job location would be a big consideration. Working at the Honolua plantation had been very convenient, he said, and he was hoping to stay in Lahaina.

"With the cost of gas, it's very expensive," he said.

For workers who wanted to stay in agriculture, Kula Country Farms had plenty of openings but prospective employees had to be able to work Upcountry.

"We're always looking for farm labor," said owner Teena Monden. "Part time, full time we're flexible."

She said the company, which grows strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, operates on 100 acres but hasn't been able to cultivate all the acreage because the farm can't get enough workers.

Picking berries is tough, physical labor, and the company has employed mainly immigrants.

"It would be nice to hire some locals," she said.

While some of the laid-off pine workers had been discouraged by the long drive to Kula, Monden said she'd hire pickers even on a temporary or seasonal basis while they looked for other work. Others who lived Upcountry had taken her card, and Monden hoped they would visit the farm and apply.

"They seemed interested," she said.

Maui Land & Pineapple announced last month it was cutting 274 positions in response to rising costs and company losses. A Rapid Response Team session for about 70 employees from Kapalua Resort and the company's executive offices was held July 29, and about 60 Maui Pine field workers already have returned to their homes in Micronesia.

While the employees' last day of work is officially Sept. 26, ML&P Human Resources Director Diane Loui said workers who find new jobs before then should talk to her if they need to leave sooner.

The company will make arrangements to release them, and they still will receive their benefits and severance package, she said.

"We don't want to hold back anybody," she said.

Pedro de Leon had worked as a picker and field worker at ML&P for 11 years, but he said he was willing to try anything. He hoped to find some leads at the job fair.

"Any kind of job, if I can do it," he said.

Art Panlasigui said things haven't been easy.

"It's not too good," he said. "We're all looking for a job."

He appreciated the Rapid Response Team meeting for explaining the different benefits that would be available and how to get them, including applying online.

"It's useful," he said. "A lot of the policies have changed. It's not like 20 years ago."

Panlasigui had been a heavy-equipment operator for the plantation for 15 years.

"It's been a hard adjustment," he said.

He was looking for another job, but needed to find something that would allow him to work similar hours to the 4:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift he was working at Maui Pine.

"It's kind of hard to find the right fit," he said.

His brother, Lito Panlasigui, who also had been with the company for 15 years, said he was encouraged by all the jobs that were available.

"There's a lot of farm openings right now," he said. "That's my first choice."

A heavy-equipment operator, Panlasigui said he could look for work in other industries, but he said he felt he could offer more to potential employers if he stayed in agriculture.

"That's where the experience comes in," he said.

He also was looking for something in West Maui.

"I don't want a job on the other side," he said.

For more Maui news, visit www.mauinews.com.