Federal aid for mill workers up in the air

Department of Labor reconsidering Trade Adjustment Assistance benefits

The Georgia-Pacific pulp and paper mill in downtown Camas closed all but one paper line May 1, affecting nearly 300 workers. (Post-Record file photo)

Five months after the May 1 beginning of a staggered layoff affecting nearly 300 employees at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Camas, displaced workers are still waiting to hear if they might receive Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) benefits from the federal government.

“I expect to receive the final decision in a week, maybe two,” Greg Pallesen, president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, which represents mill workers throughout the Western United States, said Monday. “We expected that we might have a little difficulty getting TAA.”

The benefits are meant to support workers displaced due to foreign import competition or offshore outsourcing of jobs.

In his original petition to secure TAA benefits for laid-off Camas mill workers, Palleson told the United States Department of Labor (DOL) “the evidence of foreign competition as it relates to the decline of forest products in general and to the pulp and paper industry specifically is plentiful,” and argued Camas workers should qualify for the federal benefits since “increased exports of raw material have exacerbated the foreign competition issue, making it easier for facilities in China, Indonesia and Canada” to produce and sell the type of uncoated, free-sheet office paper formerly produced on the Camas mill’s “Roaring 20” paper machine that shut down May 1.

On Aug. 10, the DOL’s Office of Trade Adjustment Assistance ruled against the mill workers’ petition for benefits, stating the department’s investigation revealed “neither Georgia-Pacific, Communications Papers, Camas Mill nor its major declining customers has increased import purchases of uncoated free sheet paper … (and) did not shift the production of uncoated free sheet paper … to a foreign country.”

Palleson appealed the decision Aug. 16, and requested the DOL reconsider the decision.

“A significant reason for the major downsizing of this facility is the ability of countries outside the U.S. to produce the same product for a lesser price,” Palleson stated in his appeal. “The reasons they can accomplish this vary, but include cheaper labor, less strict environmental standards, or newer equipment. The effect has been devastating to industries within the U.S.”

The union president also said the DOL had utilized the wrong time period when considering the request for TAA benefits, since “a decision to close a facility like a pulp mill is made years in advance.”

“The product this facility has manufactured throughout the years has changed significantly,” Palleson stated in his appeal. “For many years, this plant produced household products such as paper towels and toilet paper. Foreign competition caused this industry to become innovative and search for more profitable products in order to survive.”

For the Camas mill, Palleson said, this meant a shift to the uncoated free sheet office paper produced on the now-shuttered “Roaring 20” machine.

“At first, this shift was beneficial. Unfortunately, other companies followed suit,” he stated in the appeal. “The net result is that businesses located in other countries outside of the U.S. can still produce a product that is considerably cheaper, therefore putting the Camas mill at a disadvantage.”

Palleson told The Post-Record that, despite Georgia-Pacific’s insistence the company had to shut down the office paper line and halt pulp mill production due to lack of customer demand, there is a shortage of uncoated free sheet paper and office paper prices are at record highs.

“There’s not enough supply,” Palleson said. “All of the manufacturers are sold out.”

The union president also said he and other paper industry leaders felt frustrated by what they claim is Georgia-Pacific’s refusal to consider alternatives to shutting down the pulp mill and paper line and laying off hundreds of Camas workers.

“There are people who would buy that mill today,” Palleson said. “They would restart the pulp mill and restart (the office paper line) and most likely add one or two machines. G-P refuses to sell. They do not want competitors, even if they’re exiting the market. They will say they have no buyers, but I know of at least one (a Canadian paper mill owner) who was interested in the Camas mill.”

A few weeks before the May 1 start of the staggered layoffs at the Camas mill, Bill Spring, vice president of the AWPPW union, told The Post-Record that many displaced Camas mill workers would have trouble finding similar work in the region.

“There are some jobs out there — skilled labor is in high demand,” Spring, himself a 29-year veteran of the Camas mill, said. “But many folks will have to relocate or move.”

Finding a job that pays comparable wages may be tough, especially for longtime mill workers, who were likely earning $65,000 to $90,000 a year, Spring said.

“A lot of folks who live in Camas and Washougal right now … are going to have to look for work in other places,” Spring said. “A good portion of these (workers) are not ready to retire yet. The majority of them are still trying to figure out what they’re going to do, how they’re going to replace that family-wage job.”

On Aug. 27, the federal government ruled the Camas mill workers’ claim “is of sufficient weight to justify reconsideration of the U.S. Department of Labor’s prior decision” and granted Palleson’s request for an administrative review regarding the TAA benefits.

That decision should come down later this month.