Lawmakers air plight of fired Hilo hotel workers
A new owner rehires 20 employees of the Hawaii Naniloa Hotel
In her four years at the former Hawaii Naniloa Hotel, Emilia Hassard had worked her way up to banquet service, pulling down about $2,000 a month -- enough to support her 10-year-old daughter and get off welfare while allowing her to contemplate buying the apartment she shares with her boyfriend.
All of that changed Feb. 1, when Hassard and dozens of coworkers found themselves looking for work after ownership of the Hilo hotel changed hands. Now Hassard, 26, said she is back on welfare and may have to uproot and move into a studio apartment with her daughter and boyfriend, Dayton Quintal, who also lost his hotel job this month.
They were among seven former Naniloa employees who testified before state lawmakers yesterday at an informational briefing on the recent firings and the new owner's plans for the Naniloa.
Only about 20 of the roughly 140 workers at the hotel were rehired by new owner Ken Fujiyama, who said he only rehired those who he felt could best fit with his goal of turning the hotel, now known as the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort, into a first-class, luxury destination in East Hawaii.
Workers testified how close-knit many of them were and how the firings affected some of them physically as well as emotionally.
Fujiyama and three companies he is associated with are facing a lawsuit filed by the workers' union.
The International Longshore Workers Union contends the new owner is trying to eliminate union representation at the Naniloa. Under federal law, union representation at a work site is lost if fewer than half of the employees are retained following an ownership change.
Fujiyama noted that of those workers who were not rehired, most were not full-time and many were with the food and beverage division, which has scaled back its services for now and is only offering breakfast and lunch.
"As CEO, I had to make the tough decisions," he said. "I didn't get the feel from many of the employees that they were the type of people I was looking for."
He said he has hired about 60 new employees who, along with those retained, are scheduled to vote next month on whether to maintain union membership.
The informational briefing also allowed Big Island lawmakers to question state official Peter Young on the process through which Fujiyama's Hawaii Outdoor Tours Inc. acquired the 65-year lease for the 391-room hotel, which sits on state land.
Last year, under Act 55 of 2000, the property and land was auctioned to the highest bidder, Hawaii Outdoor Tours, for $6.1 million.
Rep. Dwight Takamine (D, Hawi-Hilo) noted that Act 55 requires the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to consider adverse impact to the community at large in executing such transactions.
Young noted that while he and the Lingle administration have concerns over the displaced workers, Attorney General Mark Bennett has said the transaction was proper and that all laws were followed. Young said he would provide lawmakers with suggestions on what action the state could take to prevent similar situations in the future.
Young added that the state does not oversee the business operations of any of its lessees.