Hours after Weyerhaeuser Co. officials told plywood workers the mill was closing Thursday — a day earlier than expected — a hard hat left behind rested on a fence outside the mill.
By Friday evening, Weyerhaeuser lumber-mill workers had also cleaned out their lockers as the largest employer in Columbia Falls shut down two of its three plants.
The closures mean the loss of 72 jobs.
“Historically, those hard hats are left behind after someone retires, but that’s obviously not what happened for a lot of us,” one lumber-mill worker said Friday night. The worker had secured a job through the company at a separate location and didn’t want his name printed.
“I know I’ve got work, but there’s a lot of people who don’t,” he said. “But those of us who grew up here, we know how to adapt — we have to in a place like this.”
Weyerhaeuser announced in late June that it would close its plywood and lumber mills, citing a shortage of logs. For many of the workers, it was a reminder of the closure that put families out of work in 2009 when Columbia Falls Aluminum Co. closed.
Tom Ray, Weyerhaeuser’s Montana resources team leader, said operations continued in the lumber mill through Friday. He said production in the plywood plant halted a day early because work wrapped up sooner than expected.
“We ran out of logs by 9 a.m.,” Ray said. “We didn’t allow the media on site because we were focused on a safe last few days and didn’t want distractions.”
Weyerhaeuser will continue to operate three mills in Montana: a lumber mill and a plywood mill in Evergreen and a medium-density fiberboard plant in Columbia Falls.
Weyerhaeuser officials initially said roughly 100 jobs would be lost as the company worked to place some employees at other locations.
Since then, that number dropped to 72 after the company was able to transition more workers than expected to other sites, Ray said.
When the company first announced the Columbia Falls mill closures, Ray said, roughly 12 people left the company for other opportunities.
The rest waited to see who would be hired at other locations.
Several workers met at Los Caporales on Friday night and looked at photos from their last day at work.
One person zoomed in of a photo of the last dried veneer that went through the mill.
The large piece of plywood leaned against a wall in an emptying room and hosted a scattered timeline of the worker’s last days at Weyerhaeuser: “Last long debarked, 10:48 a.m., 8/15/2016 … Last log peeled 9 a.m., 8/16/2016.”
Two rows of employee signatures lined the left side of the wood. Next to each printed name was the date the worker joined the mill, some dating back to 1994 and others to 2015. Each name had the same end date.
Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia said Friday that while more jobs were saved than expected, the city still lost 200 jobs — both from the mills and the ongoing shutdown of Weyerhaeuser offices.
The future of the industrial site equipped with city water and sewer is unknown, she said.
“There’s not a lot of places in Columbia Falls equipped like the mill,” Nicosia said. “We have companies that need a place to work right now, and workers that need jobs.”
Nicosia said she has not heard from the company about what it plans to do with the roughly 90-acre property.
“My understanding is that the company was waiting for the closure to talk about what they plan to do next, which I understand and respect,” she said. “I think I’m one of the many who are eager to know what’s going to happen to that site.”
Ray said the company prioritized the closures over discussing future options for the land. He said now that production has stopped, officials will focus on the site’s future.
By Monday morning, some of the 143 former Columbia Falls workers selected for jobs in Evergreen will be clocking in at their new mills.
“I want to thank all the employees,” Ray said. “I want to thank them for being dedicated and professional throughout this time.”