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December 14, 2006

In the News

The Town Dandy
Flaming out

Short Stor
Auntie Vi
The good stuff

What's next for Palco's laid-off workers?

story & photo by HEIDI WALTERS

The storm was just starting to move in last Friday, mid-morning, and dried leaves clattered down Mill Street toward Scotia's charming downtown, driven by a gusty wind. Inside the Scotia Inn, on the corner of Mill and Main, about 35 newly "dislocated" workers listened as members of the Job Market consortium offered them tools for getting back on their feet and surviving the uncertain interim until they did.

This was the second of two workshops held for the 86 Pacific Lumber employees laid off on Dec. 1. The company cited declining timber prices as the reason for belt-tightening. Another 50 workers had attended the workshop the day before. Some people seemed subdued, unhappy. But others seemed a little relieved -- even cautiously excited -- to be moving on, or retiring. They trickled in -- mill workers, forestry technicians, loader operators, office workers, department managers -- mostly men, including one man with his tiny daughter, and just a handful of women, although some of them were wives helping their husbands fill out the paperwork. Lunch and coffee were waited on a buffet table.

Some of the workers chatted a bit as they arrived -- laughing, shaking their heads. "That's life," said one man, greeting another. Another asked his friend what he was going to do next. Maybe look for work, the man, who looked about 60-something, said, maybe not. His wife added, laughing, "I've got enough things for him to do at home!"

They received packets upon packets of information. Here's where they could go to look for work, for retraining, for food stamps, for financial aid, for figuring out what to do with their 401Ks -- for just about everything. The workers filled out their unemployment insurance applications together -- the sooner those were filed, the sooner the benefits could begin.

Eduardo Vilches, standing up during the break and perusing a form, said he plans to enroll at College of the Redwoods. He's 42, and he wants to retrain as a mechanic. He started at Pacific Lumber in 1994, pulling greenchain and then moving through a succession of jobs: lumber handler, hula sawyer, cleanup and maintenance at the power plant, loader operator (feeding the boilers) and working "the hog" -- pulling lumber waste to break into smaller particles for the power plant. His last job there was in mechanics. He didn't expect the layoff, he said. But he's not looking back.

"I think positive," he said, smiling. "I had a kidney transplant two years ago, and in the last five years other smaller surgeries." photo of Virgil HallHe rolled up his sleeve to reveal a wrist made lumpy from dialysis. "So, I've been through a lot of badder stuff than this. Yes, this layoff is going to hurt my family [he has two kids], but we have to get through this."

At one table, a couple of younger men, maybe in their early 30s, declined to talk about their situations. "I'm kind of really just distraught over the whole thing, and I don't want to talk about it," said one.

After the workshop, Virgil Hall (photo at left) and his wife, Marleen, stopped by the door to talk. Hall has worked nearly 40 years in timber, starting "Oct. 10, 1966," when he was 18. He pulled greenchain for awhile, then spent the next 30-odd years as a front-end loader operator, putting logs on trucks and pulling them off. The last 20 years he worked for Pacific Lumber. "I was kind of surprised" about the layoffs, he said. "But I went through so many of them. I've survived four rounds of layoffs, and sooner or later my number was up."

"We've known it's been coming," said Marleen. "So we've been planning. It's Palco. It's going down."

For now, Virgil, 58, has no specific plans. "Just go one day at a time," he said. "I went and picked some applications up -- the pulp mill, the power plant. I'm going to try to do a job in the same industry. But if something different comes up, if I like it, I take it." This is a different Virgil than one might have met, say, 10 years ago.

"I was a company man, I admit that," he said. "If they asked me to work overtime, I'd work overtime. If they asked me to stay late, I'd stay late. Like in the Westerns: If you were a cowpuncher, you `stayed with the brand.' I spent my life at the mill. I'm not the type to move on. [But] now, I'm my own man."

In the Scotia Inn's lobby, one of the several managers who also lost their jobs agreed to talk about it, anonymously, because he was, technically, "still employed" by Palco, he said -- the company gave the laid-off workers 60 days paid leave (many of them will receive accrued severance pay afterwards). He's been with Palco 12 years, and was with another lumber operation for 18 years. "So, two jobs in 30 years." It was, he admitted, a little weird to be filling out an unemployment insurance form. The last time he did that was in 1976, for benefits he took for two weeks. For the last three years, he said, Palco's financial straits have been on everyone's minds. "I knew that the company was going to have to make some tough decisions, and it was common knowledge that the company wasn't making money," he said. "This time, they cut deep -- real deep. A lot of good people, hardworking, honest people." He isn't bitter, though. "The company's been good to me, and I really liked my job. I liked the people I worked with."

He said he plans to research opportunities through the Job Market -- a consortium of seven agencies that runs a federally mandated one-stop-shop for guiding people toward jobs. "I'm excited about it," he said. "I think I'll go back to school. I love landscaping, and plants. I love nature."

Outside, the wind was getting stronger and rain was slanting down while sunlight streamed in through breaks in the dark clouds, making a blustery bright mixture. A young man, who had seemed more agitated than many of the other workers in the workshop, was hurrying to another Scotia building to deal with some paperwork. He, too, wanted to speak anonymously, for now. He wasn't happy, he said -- and he was probably going to sue Palco over what he considers wrongful termination related to medical conditions he'd incurred on the job. The man said he's injured, and not sure he'd be hired by another timber outfit. "I'm going to do my best to land on my feet." He hopes it'll be in forestry.

So, what are these laid-off workers prospects? Andrea Arnot, spokesperson for Pacific Lumber, said on Monday that the company is "working hard to get them letters of recommendation." She said workers were laid off from every division in the company -- mill operations, sales and marketing, ScoPac, real estate division (whose employees take care of the town grounds and buildings, as well) -- "from management on down."

"This reduction in workforce had nothing to do with the performances of our employees," Arnot said. "This was a decision driven by the marketplace. And it's being felt [by other companies, too]. The timber industry historically has highs and lows, but over the past several months, the industry has seen a 30-percent decline in Douglas fir prices and a 10-percent decline in redwood prices. It's unprecedented in the last 20 years." The declines are being blamed on slow housing starts -- "a 25 percent plunge in new home construction" in the last six months, she said. And, she said, for now the layoffs look "permanent."

Back in Eureka, Jacqueline Debets, executive director of the Humboldt County Workforce Investment Board, said there are jobs out there -- in fact, many employers in Humboldt County are having trouble finding workers, she said. "The common mythology around the county is, `There's no jobs. Everybody's leaving because there's no jobs.' That's an outdated mentality."

That said, the timber industry may not necessarily be where these recently laid-off Palco workers end back up. "There were over 11,000 people in 1965 who were employed [locally] in lumber and wood manufacturing," Debets said. "There are 3,000 today. It's a big drop."

Pacific Lumber has gone from around 1,800 employees in its heyday to, after this last round of layoffs, 400 employees.

"That kind of resource-based economy that existed in America is gone," Debets said. "And within one generation. And, so, emotionally, we still feel that's what it should be. But Humboldt County now is more diversified, and we have more stability. Today, timber is 12 percent of our economy. It's still high -- but educational research is 13 percent. The knowledge industries are big."

She said the transition into one of these other industries might not be easy for some of Palco's dislocated workers, and some might balk at a big change. "Some people will move," she said, to stay in timber. "Some people will transition into something else and stay here." And those who stay could end up being hired at places they maybe never even thought of before.

"Loleta Cheese -- they looked for a long time for a dairy manager, a year. They finally hired someone. Kokatat just hired a former business owner. Streamguys -- it's growing 100 percent a year. If you're an experienced close person, in sales, you've got a job. They want sales and marketing people. Is it a direct transfer from timber to there? Probably not. A lot of these people will need retraining."



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