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Out of a job and finding work for others

  • Story Highlights
  • Cigar factory closes its doors after 100 years in Tampa, Florida, leaving 500 jobless
  • Laid-off worker starts Web site listing former colleagues' names and skills
  • Prospective employers can search the site by job titles such as engineer, electrician
  • So far, there are guarantees for 30 jobs, mostly for unskilled labor
By Kim Segal and John Zarrella
CNN
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TAMPA, Florida (CNN) -- Ron Russell was a machinist at the Hav-A-Tampa cigar factory in Tampa for 3½ years.

An undated photo shows workers rolling cigars at the Hav-A-Tampa factory in Tampa, Florida.

Ron Russell has started a Web site to help find work for his fellow laid-off cigar factory workers.

When he was hired, Russell remembers thinking, "There's no reason I have to look for a job again. ... I was thinking, here's a place I can retire from. I thought I was safe in a 100-year-old company."

But Russell and his colleagues -- almost 500 workers -- recently lost their jobs when Hav-A-Tampa shut its doors in Florida to consolidate operations in Puerto Rico. The plant had been operating since 1902.

After the plant closure, Russell didn't start pounding the pavement looking for another job for himself. Instead, he did something very different -- he decided to contact local businesses to see if they would hire his laid off colleagues.

After a few calls, he realized it would be easier to centralize the employee information in one location, ideally a Web site. But that would cost money.

So he asked each colleague for a dollar.

"I collected $30 out of the folks at work," Russell said. "Some could give, some couldn't."

Soon, havatampaneedsjobs.com was born. On it are the names, contact information and skills of former Hav-A-Tampa employees who want to be listed. It's one-stop shopping, Russell said, for companies looking for workers.

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To use the site, laid-off employees can become a member by going to the site's home page, where they can list their employment and contact information.

Potential employers can search the database by clicking on job titles such as engineer, electrician and general labor.

Among those who donated and joined the site is Harvey Morris, a mechanical engineer with 23 years of experience. Morris said he was skeptical at first. "But I also knew Ron. I knew that he was very determined," Morris said.

When asked what type of workers an employer would find on the site, Morris said, "Simply put, quality people, just quality people."

Since becoming the unofficial job placement advocate for his former colleagues, Russell said he has guarantees for 30 jobs, mostly for unskilled laborers who were laid off.

Russell is overjoyed at the generosity of those businesses. His sales pitch: "I told them if you could take one person you are a hero to 500."

"I am kinda flying by the seat of my pants because I never done nothing like this before," Russell said. Video Watch Russell talk about his efforts to find work for his former colleagues »

At one time, there were some 200 cigar factories in Tampa. It's down to one now, the J.C. Newman Company. Hav-A-Tampa officials said a new federal tax dramatically increased the price of their cigars and reduced consumption.

"It's an absolute tragedy. Totally preventable tragedy," said syndicated radio talk show host Dave Zeplowitz, known as "Cigar Dave." "There's no other product that is taxed at 53 percent in this nation.

"This is a company that's given people tremendous livelihoods, and that's all gone," Zeplowitz said. "Every piece of history in this city, every building is intertwined with cigars."

The new tax was levied to help fund a federal health insurance program for children from low-income families. Ironically, Russell said, his child qualifies now for the insurance, at least until he finds work.

Russell doesn't blame his former employer for losing his job. "I was unhappy about being taxed out of a job, because that's what happened," he said.

Russell has put his own plans on hold while he helps his fellow workers. The father of one said he eventually plans to open his own machine shop. But he's not worried about the risk.

"I'm not going to be safe in a 100-year-old company, might as well try to not be safe in my own."

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"No. 1 will get his turn when it's time," Russell said.

But now's the time, he said, to find work for the others.

All About Layoffs and DownsizingNational Economy

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