Laid-off mill workers qualify for assistance

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A lone hard hat hangs from the fence outside the Weyerhaeuser plywood mill on Thursday. The plant closed Thursday. (Aaric Bryan/Daily Inter Lake)

Laid-off Weyerhaeuser employees are now eligible to apply for federal benefits slotted for industry workers who lost their job as a result of international trade or competition.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced the Columbia Falls mill workers laid off from Aug. 23, 2015, through Nov. 22, 2018, may be eligible for support in training, job search, relocation funding and a health coverage tax credit.

“We thought it was a long-shot to get this approval,” said Laura Gardner, the manager of Flathead Job Service. “But we’re very happy that these benefits went through. Otherwise, the funding we have to help them is very limited.”

Weyerhaeuser announced in late June it would close its plywood and lumber mills, citing a shortage of logs. The news came roughly a year after the Seattle-based timber giant took over the site from Plum Creek Timber Co.

As a result, 240 jobs left Columbia Falls as the company shuttered two of its three Montana plants. Some workers moved to positions at other mills, while 72 started to collect unemployment. Another 100 administrative jobs were set to disappear with the closure.

In August, the Kalispell Job Service filed a petition with the U.S Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Program on behalf of the workers.

Gardner said the petition was one of the many efforts to find help for the Columbia Falls families affected by the closure.

“A lot of people said that [the closure] was because Weyerhaeuser took over Plum Creek, and it was just a corporate decision,” Gardner said. “Getting the benefits, it’s not what we expected, but we’re pretty excited about it.”

The organization received word the day after Thanksgiving that up to 205 mill workers could qualify for the re-employment program.

ACCORDING TO the Department of Labor, a Washington D.C.-based investigation collected information from the job services firm, the U.S. International Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Weyerhaeuser employees can apply for the program because sales or production by the mill “decreased absolutely” leading up to the closure, according to the department’s decision.

At the same time, imports of products competitive with Weyerhaeuser material increased. According to the decision, “imports contributed importantly to worker group separations and sales/production declines.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was one of the 41 senators to co-sponsor the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance Reauthorization Act of 2015, which extended funds for the program through 2020. He said the benefits are an important resource for “workers who were unfairly laid off.”

“Every Montanan who was laid off by Weyerhaeuser deserves an opportunity to land a new good-paying job at home in the Flathead Valley,” Tester said.

UNDER THE re-employment assistance, Gardner said people 50 or older who took a lower-paying job after they left the mill may qualify for a wage subsidy.

She said other workers interested in retraining for a new field could receive unemployment benefits for up to two years. But, those people have 26 weeks to enroll in a training program before they’re cut off from assistance.

“If they miss that 26-week deadline, there are no additional unemployment benefits they would qualify for,” Gardner said. “That means most of them, if they were looking at going to a community college or a university, they need to get a plan, get in, and start training in January, which doesn’t give us or them a lot of time.”

Next week, Flathead Job Service will pair with Flathead Valley Community College to present workers with possible next steps.

The Dec. 6 workshop will be at 9 a.m. in the FVCC Arts and Technology Building community meeting room. The meeting could last between two to three hours.

Gardner said while Weyerhaeuser is required to send her office a list of former employees who qualify for the benefits, there’s still some uncertainty of who is eligible. For that reason, she said it’s important for any laid-off Weyerhaeuser worker to attend the meeting.

“They can hear about the benefits and start thinking about things, and we can start getting contact information from them as well,” she said. “We’ll talk about what it is that they want to do, probably have some career exploration working with the college [for] people who don’t know for sure what they want.”

FVCC President Jane Karas said the college has been working with job services since news of the closure hit in June.

“I want the workers to know we’ll be looking at all the options, in education or retraining, to get them back into the workforce as soon as possible. We will work with them to make sure they have that opportunity,” Karas said.

GARDNER SAID for some of the Weyerhaeuser workers, this isn’t the first time they’ve been in the Trade Adjustment Assistance program.

She listed the string of northwest Montana job losses in recent years. In 2008, 200 people lost their jobs when the Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. closed. That same year, Plum Creek laid off about 125 workers. Semitool Inc. laid off 100.

“I mean I could go back through it all. During the recession … we had over 1,400 people in our valley who were eligible for the benefits. About half of those enrolled,” she said. “We’ve had quite a bit of experience with this program in the valley, so we know it pretty well.”

For more information about assistance or the upcoming workshop, call the Flathead Job Service at 406-758-6200 and ask for someone in programs.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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