Help Wanted - Hawaii's Economic Crisis


By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Even children mourned when sirens wailed one final
time at the Kau sugar plantation in March 1996. The girls
are Joy Andrade, left, and Chauncey Souza.

Pain of job loss
runs deep

Hardships that accompany
a bad economy extend way beyond
financial loss

By Jerry Tune

A few months after Albert Ledgenberger was laid off from his job as electrical supervisor at the Kau Agribusiness Co. sugar plant on the Big Island, he began experiencing dizziness and nausea.

"I got out of bed one day and thought I had a stroke," he said. It turned out to be vertigo, a disease that affects balance and the ability to move. After 10 weeks, the vertigo went away, but then Ledgenberger, 63, said the dizziness later came back, accompanied by internal bleeding.

Ledgenberger blames his illness on the stress of losing his job and says he's not alone, pointing to two suicides in the area after the plant closure last year.

"It affects people subconsciously," he said. "It's in the background, gnawing away at you."

A recent study by the University of Hawaii supports his opinion about the hardships that come hand-in-hand with a sour economy.

The Center on the Family at the University of Hawaii interviewed 126 families from Hamakua and Kau on the Big Island between September 1995 and March 1996, a time when the island's sugar industry was shutting down. Most families interviewed had a member who had lost a job; others were awaiting layoffs.

Researchers found:

Severe levels of emotional stress in 34 percent of children, 26 percent of men and 19 percent of women. This included anxiety, depression, physical distress and hostility or other problem behaviors severe enough to warrant psychological treatment.

Women's trips to the doctor's office increased 27 percent.

School absences by children increased 56 percent.

Nearly all of the families had used their savings to live on, and 52 percent sought financial help from extended family members.

Sixty to 80 percent had difficulty paying their bills, affording medical care or buying necessities such as food and clothing.

Forty-two percent made use of emergency assistance, primarily food banks.

Forty-four percent reduced insurance coverage or delayed obtaining health care.

Thirty-five percent saved money by bartering and 22 percent sold or pawned household belongings.

Eleven percent had their utilities disconnected due to delinquent bills.

Kaneohe psychologist Dr. Ronald Barozzi has seen firsthand what happens to local families when they face economic hard times.

What do you think?

He tells the story of a couple who divorced after the husband was laid off and eventually withdrew into depression and alcohol abuse.

Barozzi said the woman was left to take care of the couple's three school-age children. After a year of working two jobs, she eventually started to have medical problems.

"Her body was failing her as she struggled to hold it together . . . But the doctor found no physical explanation for her symptoms. She was referred to me," Barozzi said. "Listening to her story, it became clear that she was collapsing under the weight of trying to hold everything together and keep her children's lifestyle the way it was before the divorce."

Barozzi said he was able to help the woman by getting her to realize that she could not keep up the same lifestyle, that she and her family had to make sacrifices.

But Barozzi said the story is all too common: Increased stress leads to physical problems, lower job performance, burn-out and depression.

Some Hawaii employers offer counseling through the Employee Assistance Program but "many employees do not use it because of the stigma attached to mental health," he said.

The Hawaii Psychologists Association does not keep a count of how many problems can be attributed to economic hardships, but Barozzi said there are many national studies that link economics with psychological breakdowns.

For example:

A study of Michigan auto workers in the 1980s, after plants were closed, showed that up to 10 percent of the workers displayed signs of excessive drinking, illness, anxiety and suicide.

Researchers in Los Angeles County interviewed more than 8,000 people during the 1978-82 recession and found levels of depression three times the normal rate.

The Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress reported in 1984 that the moderate economic recession of 1973-74 led to increases of 2.3 percent in mortality, 6 percent in mental hospital admissions and 6 percent in overall arrests.

In Hawaii, the social problems caused by a bad economy have been compounded by other economic factors, Barozzi said.

Managed care has lowered the number of approved visits to a psychologist. The Hawaii Medical Service Association limits visits to 12 a year, said Barozzi, who recently moved his practice from Honolulu to his Kaneohe home to cut expenses.

So patients who are stressed because of their economic situation are limited in how much help they can get from a psychologist.

On the Big Island, Ledgenberger continues to deal with the stress that started when he was laid off in March 1996. He worked for Kau Agribusiness from 1983 to 1996.

"After 13-1/2 years, I get $61.60 a month for my pension," he said.

He said he has earned only about $6,000 doing consultant work since being laid off.

"I work one hour here and maybe five hours there.

"It's a big change in my life at my age," he said. "It's difficult to find a job. Any corporation who wants an electrical engineer is not going to hire a 63-year-old man. They want a young man with the latest training."

Booklet provides assistance for families

The University of Hawaii has published a guide to help those people who are laid off from their jobs.

The 25-page booklet, "Overcoming Job Loss: A Family Guide," was written after the university interviewed families from Hamakua and Kau on the Big Island; many of the families were impacted by job losses when sugar plantations closed.

The booklet deals with family finances and includes tips on managing money, coping with emotional problems, health problems and the effect on children, family communication, seeking support, and job hunting.

The booklet is available for $2 through the Center on the Family at the university, 2515 Campus Road, Miller Hall 103, Honolulu 96822.

Should they stay or should they go?

Is there enough meaningful, rewarding and stable work to hold Hawaii's graduates, or should our children look elsewhere for financial success? Those were the questions asked of some of Hawaii's business leaders. Here's what they said:

Walter Dods
Chairman and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank

"Some of the bank's best executives are local people who went away and then returned looking for a better quality of life. So it is important that you balance your goals.

"I don't consider it a brain drain when our kids leave, because I know many will return."

Philip Bossert
President of Strategic Information Solutions

"I tell my students to look how they can create a new job. I'm not sure I would tell someone to live on the mainland, but I would urge them to try to create a work opportunity and then go where you want to live.

"With the Internet now, people may live in Hawaii but actually work somewhere else."

David Heenan
Campbell Estate trustee

"I tell students to challenge themselves at the highest level and go where you can stretch the most.

"Having our kids work outside of Hawaii is nothing to be ashamed of, we could even become a net exporter of Hawaii kids.

"If you leave this place with the right skills, you can leave without losing your identity.

"Hawaii kids have an ambience that travels well, and with their Asian language skills -- they can cream the competition anywhere in the world."

Jeff Watanabe
Senior partner, Watanabe, Ing and Kawashima

"I spend a lot of time wondering about it, I don't think we should take it for granted. The issue may be that we are losing them (students). And I don't want to downplay the serious implications of a brain drain."

How has the slump affected you?

Florencia Puzon, Unemployed administrative worker

Florencia Puzon, 45, and her family moved here two years ago from Manila. She feels they were lucky because she and her husband found jobs quickly -- she as a program specialist at Child & Family Services and he as a security officer at Hilton Hawaiian Village. Although she says it's expensive to live here and save, the family recently closed a deal on an Ewa Beach home.

Her luck changed when she was laid off on June 30 due to state budget cuts. Now she's worried about making her mortgage payments. Puzon says she's been sending out resumes and making calls, but so far no one has called. "My daughter just graduated and landed a job as a bookkeeper. At least she can help. If not, I would be more worried."

Dubious Distinction

Hawaii had the highest
rate of increase for bankruptcy
filings in 1996.

Source: U.S. Bankruptcy Court of Honolulu

Wanted: Your comments
What needs to be done to help Hawaii emerge from
its prolonged slump? Write to us at Letters to the
Editor/Economy, P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, HI 96802
or e-mail us at and share
your suggestions. Please include your
daytime telephone number.

© 1997 Honolulu Star-Bulletin

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