Laid-off plantation workers face tough job market on Maui - Hawaii News Now - KGMB and KHNL

Laid-off plantation workers face tough job market on Maui

This undated photo shows Puunene Mill on Maui. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons This undated photo shows Puunene Mill on Maui. Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

The 675 workers who will lose their jobs this year as Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. shuts down sugar operations face a tough job market on Maui, with a glut of entry-level positions but limited higher-paying jobs.

HC&S owner Alexander and Baldwin is promising laid off employees severance packages and help finding work.

But, said Maui state Sen. J. Kalani English, "There may not be jobs for people to go to."

He believes it will be easier for the plantation's welders and truck drivers to land another job.

"But the people that are in the field, that are harvesting cane, driving the trucks, etc., I think they'll have a more difficult time," he said.

There are few openings in Maui's tourism industry.

One bright spot is that unemployment on the Valley Isle is only about 3 percent.

"We're in one of the lowest unemployment times. We'll probably be able to absorb many of the employees because there's a demand for workers," said Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa.

The problem: Many of those positions don't pay as much as the plantation.

"There are a lot of jobs available, but they're retail, customer service, there's jobs at the airport," said University of Hawaii-Maui economics professor Cynthia Foreman. "They're all entry-level positions that pay close to minimum wage."

The state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations has offered help to the ILWU, the union that represents HC&S workers.

"We will be prepared to provide information on unemployment compensation benefits, on career transition counseling, on job training, job placement," Labor Department Director Linda Chu-Takayama said.

A&B plans to divide its 36,000 acres in central Maui into smaller farms for cattle, food and energy crops.

"A&B is looking at different types of agriculture," English said. "We're hoping that they can help transition some of those workers into energy field crops."

The layoffs begin in March and will be completed by the end of the year.

One of those who will be laid off is machinist Wesley Bissen.

He's near retirement, and is more worried about his colleagues who are younger.

"It's all these guys," he said. "That's all my family."

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