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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 5, 2010

The disappearance of the $50,000 job

Two years have passed since Aloha Airlines went away, an occasion that should be marked not by remembrances of a dead company but by acknowledgement of the difficulty its 1,900 workers have had regaining their economic footing.

No one has a firm count of how many Aloha workers ever found new jobs, but what is known from interviews is that even those who are working are making a lot less money.

As of December 2009, the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations said 277 former Aloha workers were still on the books as having used up their maximum unemployment benefits, meaning at least 15 percent of the Aloha workforce probably never found jobs or gave up looking.

The actual number is indisputably higher, along with hundreds more who took their skills and experience and left Hawai'i.

In a report last spring, Pacific Business News found that only 36 percent of the laid off Aloha workers ever availed themselves of skills assessments and retraining offered as part of a $5.5 million emergency grant made by the federal government.

And by the end of 2008, only 13 former Aloha 737 pilots had applied for federal grants to retrain them to fly different kinds of aircraft. Many of the pilots left the state; some are flying overseas.

For the 450 or so people fortunate enough to get hired over the past two years by Hawaiian Airlines, Aloha Air Cargo, go! and other smaller carriers, most found their pay and benefits diminished, their seniority erased. Many are stuck piecing together part-time work with no benefits.

"Pay and schedules are the most important elements when working at an airline and they effectively rule the life of a pilot or flight attendant," says Bruce Mayes, an Aloha pilot for 22 years who lost his job and now runs an aviation consulting business in Honolulu. "The former Aloha employees are at the bottom of the barrel for both."

Even when the economy was humming, a lament of business leaders was the inability of the Hawai'i economy to create not just jobs but good-paying jobs, generally in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year. The recession has wiped out thousands of those jobs, from white-collar analysts working for the state to factory workers laid off by Maui Land & Pineapple.

The loss of those jobs, and the income taxes they generate, is one more reason the state financial picture is so grim. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis recently reported that Hawai'i's per-capita personal income was down slightly in 2009, reflecting the pressure on wages.

While policymakers and economists talk a lot about job numbers, it's important to refine those statistics to reflect not just quantity but quality of jobs. The recession and the loss of big employers like Aloha Airlines have accelerated a disturbing trend that is obliterating the middle class in Hawai'i and pushing more people into the broadening category known as the working poor.