GARY T. KUBOTA / GKUBOTA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Antonio and Estilita Peria say they don't know what they'll do for a living after the cannery closes today at Maui Pineapple Co. in Kahului. Some 120 people were laid off, although the company plans to expand its production and sale of fresh fruit.
Cannery work runs dry for employees
Maui Pineapple Co.'s closure of its plant leaves lives in limbo
KAHULUI » Maui couple Antonio and Estilita Peria say they're nervous about finding jobs to replace the ones they're losing with the closing of the cannery at Maui Pineapple Co.
"I like work if I can find a job," said Estilita, 52, a pineapple trimmer who worked for the company for 15 years.
At the sounding of the afternoon work whistle today, the company is scheduled to end its fruit and juice canning operation, the last of its kind in the United States.
Brief history of Maui Pineapple Co. cannery:
» 1926: Cannery in Kahului is built by California Packing Corp. and Maui Pineapple Co.
» 1932: Maui Pineapple exercises its option to buy the cannery.
» 1962: Baldwin Packers in west Maui merges with Maui Pineapple in Kahului.
» 2007: Maui Pineapple closes cannery and spends $20 million for equipment to produce fresh fruit.
Some 120 workers are being laid off, including 73 today and 47 by July 31.
The pineapple producer, a subsidiary of Maui Land & Pineapple Co., still intends to market its fresh pineapple here and in other states.
But it will ship its juice in large containers to the U.S. mainland for packaging.
Residents say Hawaii is losing more than just another business.
For thousands of youths, the cannery was a rite of passage, providing them with their first job in high school and giving them a taste of blue-collar work.
Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares, who has worked as a trimmer at Dole Cannery on Oahu and as a pineapple field supervisor on Maui, said the work served as motivation for a higher education.
"Everybody should do that. Then they'd appreciate their education," said Tavares, a former physical education teacher at Maui High School.
The cannery closure follows similar decisions by other pineapple producers in Hawaii, including Dole and Del Monte.
Del Monte folded its pineapple canning operation on Oahu in 1983, and Dole shut down its pineapple cannery in Iwilei in 1992.
Both Dole and Del Monte have used pineapples grown in foreign countries.
Maui Pineapple President David Cole said the company will sell off the cannery equipment, probably to a company in Asia.
ILWU union official William Kennison has criticized the company for continuing to cut back the number of agricultural employees, indicating a lack of commitment toward farming.
Cole said the company has spent $20 million to improve its fresh-fruit packing facilities.
"It's not the conduct of a company going out of business," he said. The company actions "actually argue the other way. I think we are improving, but we've got a way to go before we're profitable."
Cole said the company wants to eventually expand its market for fresh fruit to Texas and Chicago but that Maui Airport would need a longer airport runway to allow jets to be fully loaded with produce.
Meanwhile, pineapple workers will have to cope with life after the cannery.
Estilita said Antonio, 53, who came with her from the Philippines in 1992, has arthritis and has difficulty standing for long lengths of time.
She said one of the problems is that they'll lose their company medical coverage.
Asked what they intend to do to meet living and medical expenses, Antonio said, "I don't know."
Workers in related jobs are also being laid off, including Steve Takayama and Wesley Shiroma, who operate forklifts in the company warehouse.
The two have worked for the company for 25 years, and Takayama said he had expected to retire from the company.
"I'm bummed out," said Takayama.
Of the 120 employees to be laid off, eight have chosen to retire, six have applied and will be hired for other positions, and at least 25 are looking at opportunities at the Kapalua Resort, the company said.
Many of the employees plan to receive retraining for other jobs under a federal program, the company said.
Maui Pine produced 230,484 tons of canned pineapple at its peak in 1992. It is expected to produce 48,000 tons of canned pineapple this year, the company said.