Mill workers consider their options  (link to Story)
Social services gear up as unemployment spikes Forest Service holds out hope for stimulus-funded projects

Delaine Fragnoli
Managing Editor

Traci Bue
Staff Writer

    The move by Sierra Pacific Industries to close its small-log mill in Quincy is a major blow to this multi-generational logging town. The Sierra Pacific sawmill has long been the town’s single largest nongovernmental employer.   Many mill workers who will be laid off in May aren’t sure at this point what they’ll do for work.

    Kim, part of a non-union construction crew and among the 150 who will be jobless in May, has nine years’ experience at the mill. On the far side of middle age, the Quincy resident said he doesn’t have a plan, but anticipates he’ll be all right. “The whole country is in the same boat.”

    As for the impact to the community, he said 150 people does not sound like a lot, but for a small town like Quincy that is supported by the mill, “it’s going to be tough on the town.”

    For some sawmill workers, the announcement of layoffs is familiar news. “It’s the second time around for me,” said a worker on lunch break, who didn’t want to give his name.

    He transferred from the Loyalton plant when it closed in 2001, but according to company policy, seniority doesn’t transfer from one plant to another. His 30 years on the job left him no better off than workers with under 10 years’ experience and among the first to be laid off.

    Local union official Mike Wood said SPI operates under three kinds of seniority — company, which goes towards benefits, plant seniority within the plants and department seniority. Someone with 30 years of company seniority can be bumped by someone with more plant seniority.

    Those in positions being eliminated have 24 hours to decide their future, in or out of the company.

    Another concern for employees is the immediate skill readiness directive for those bumping to new positions. Employees are eligible to bump others with less seniority as long as they have the required skills. In addition to the discomfort of being forced to take a coworker’s job or settle for a lesser available position, “refresher” training is required off the clock. Many longtime employees meet the requisite qualifications, but haven’t worked in the particular area for a decade or more.

    Some workers, close to retirement, will now face the challenges of different machinery, different duties and new bosses. Workers who don’t show rapid up-to-speed skills in the new position face termination.

    Wood said many issues are going to surface in the next 60 days, and outside job re-education and severance pay remain to be discussed.

    SPI officials said they would work to accommodate affected employees who have an interest in transfers and relocation.

    Company spokesman Mark Pawlicki said Thursday, March 5, that he didn’t know yet how many transfers were possible, but as job openings occurred employees would be notified.

    There may be few openings: The company has cut hours at its Burney and Sonora plants and eliminated a shift at its Anderson sawmill, which eliminated 24 jobs.

    Employee agreements also differ from plant to plant. Some of SPI’s facilities are unionized and others are not, according to their status when the company acquired them.

    He said the company had not put together any “golden parachute” or early retirement enticements for workers. “We have 60 days to work out the details [of layoffs, transfers, etc.],” Pawlicki said.

    Social service providers in the area are using the 60 days to prepare as well. Elliott Smart, director of social services for the county, said his office was focused on helping families make constructive choices.

    “If I could get one message out, it would be to come and ask,” he said. “Don’t assume you’re not eligible for assistance.”

    Smart said even those who are not eligible for immediate assistance might become eligible as the months go by or as circumstances change.

    He said his goal was to provide “the best information possible” to help families “move forward in some direction.”

    Smart’s department is part of the “rapid response team” coordinated by Plumas Work Connection. Traci Holt, executive director of Alliance for Workforce Development, said the team “is tasked with responding to a business closure or substantial layoff of any business in Plumas County.”

    By Tuesday morning, the day after the layoff announcement, the team had coordinated with SPI to begin notifying employees of the services available to them. Services include help with applying for unemployment, job searches, relocation, retraining and more.

    Informational meetings have been scheduled from 3–5 p.m. March 12, 16, 18, 23 and 25 at the Work Connection in East Quincy.

    More meetings will be scheduled as layoff lists are finalized.

    Other members of the response team include California Employment Development Department, Plumas Rural Services, Plumas Crisis Intervention and Resource Center, and Plumas County Literacy Services.

    Plumas District Hospital also moved quickly to head off the financial impact of the mill closure on the hospital.

    Chief Executive Officer Richard Hathaway said adjustments are being made to offset an estimated $440,000 in anticipated lost patient revenues.

    Hathaway said the announcement of the closure of the mill was a shock having significant community ramifications, and the initial hit to the hospital was “as we all know, just the first ripple effect.”

    The CEO assured the hospital board March 5 that continued adjustments would occur as events progressed. “We believe we can contain, to a large degree, what the impact of this will be on our organization,” said Hathaway.

    Union representative Wood said the effects on the local economy would be dramatic.

    “Every manufacturing job affects four other jobs … suppliers, retailers … from the tire store to the restaurants, this will have a negative impact.”

    Those thoughts were echoed when the Quincy Library Group convened for a regularly scheduled meeting Friday, March 6. Three-dozen people attended, including county supervisor Lori Simpson and representatives for Congressmen Wally Herger and Tom McClintock.

    An SPI representative clarified that the layoff number of 150 included truck drivers.

    Conversation centered on the “multiplier effect” of losing those 150 jobs. The consensus was those losses could easily translate to an additional 100–250 jobs as the fallout spread to other woods workers and the businesses which support them.   That bodes ill for a county whose unemployment rate spiked to 18.9 percent in January, according to preliminary, unadjusted figures released Thursday, March 5.

    Plumas County tied for the fourth highest unemployment rate in the state with Merced County and behind Trinity (20.9 percent), Imperial (24.2 percent) and Colusa (26.7 percent). Overall, the state recorded a rate of 10.6 percent.

    The increase for Plumas was a doubling of the rate for December 2008 (9.1 percent) and well above the 14.2 percent recorded last January. Historically, Plumas County has its highest unemployment rates in February, generally attributed to the seasonal nature of the agriculture and tourism sectors.

    John Sheehan, executive director of Plumas Corporation, said he was surprised by the “abrupt” rise in unemployment and pointed out that the last time it was this high was February 1996, when it reached 19 percent.

    At the QLG meeting, Forest Service representatives held out hope federal stimulus money would result in job creation.

    Beth Pendleton, deputy regional forester for natural resources for the Pacific Southwest Region, told the group, “This is all about jobs in communities.”

    Funds will be distributed in two categories — wildland fire management and capital improvements, such as work on roads, trails and facilities.

    But competition for the funds will be fierce: Region 5, of which Plumas is a part, submitted $1 billion worth of projects; nationwide, requests were more than $4 billion. But the agency is set to receive just $1.15 billion.

    Pendleton said criteria included looking at the counties most affected by job losses. “We expect Plumas and Lassen to get some.”

    Congressman Wally Herger’s representative asked if these projects could be litigated.

    Alice Carlton, forest supervisor on the Plumas National Forest, answered, “The projects we put forward have been through the planning process.”

    She said the fuel-reduction projects would include a lot of “hand work” such as piling, burning and mastication, “projects we can create jobs around. The kind of work we don’t usually get money to do.”

    Pendleton said the agency would know the first 10 percent of the projects next week. These were projects where work could start immediately. She said she expected to know the remaining 90 percent in the next 10 days.

    Carlton added that most of the proposed projects on the Plumas forest would fall into the latter group because work could not begin immediately because there was snow on the ground.