Nine months after the beginning of a staggered layoff affecting nearly 250 employees at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Camas, laid-off workers have received some good news — the United States Department of Labor (DOL) Office of Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) has certified the entire mill site, meaning displaced workers are now eligible to receive federal assistance for retraining and get extended unemployment and health insurance benefits.
The TAA benefits are meant to support workers displaced due to foreign import competition or offshore outsourcing of jobs.
Georgia-Pacific, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which owns the mill, had blamed the layoffs and mill slowdown on a lack of customer demand for office paper, but in its most recent ruling, the DOL said foreign import competition and “increased customer imports of uncoated free sheet papers and paper towels” led to a sales decline and, ultimately, to the shuttering of the Camas pulp mill and office paper production line on May 1, 2018.
The ruling means workers laid off from the Camas mill between March 8, 2017 and Jan. 22, 2021, will be able to receive retraining benefits and, during that retraining period, collect unemployment benefits.
“It’s good news that it’s been certified,” Greg Pallesen, president of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, which represents mill workers throughout the Western United States, told The Post-Record last week. “But it has been a very frustrating process. We were denied the first time and had to file an appeal and send additional supporting documentation.”
Benefits could help former mill workers struggling to replace their living-wage jobs
Even with the now-approved TAA benefits, Palleson said many displaced Camas mill workers are struggling after the layoffs.
“Imagine living on unemployment, maybe you have one or two kids in college … it’s a bad situation,” Palleson said.
Denise Korhonen, 63, worked in the pulp mill’s bleach plant for 43 years until the 2018 layoffs. Now, Korhonen works as a peer counselor with WorkSource Vancouver, helping her former coworkers file for unemployment benefits, find new jobs and seek retraining opportunities.
Korhonen said she has been waiting for the DOL to rule in favor of the mill workers for the past 10 months.
“I’m relieved this is over,” Korhonen told The Post-Record on Monday. “I can’t tell you how hard it was to keep telling people, ‘no.’ This was a disservice to all the employees, especially for people who have been without unemployment benefits since November. The process shouldn’t have taken so long.”
The benefits will help displaced workers retrain for new, in-demand fields. The program will pay for two years’ worth of retraining costs and allow eligible workers enrolled in those WorkSource-approved programs to collect unemployment benefits during the retraining period.
The key, Korhonen said, is that the retraining programs must be deemed “in demand” by the state of Washington and not be in decline. For former mill employees hoping to stay in this area, they need to find a field that is in demand in the Vancouver-Portland metro area.
The retraining will look different for each person. Some may go to a technical school for two years to learn a new trade. Others could be part of a two-year apprenticeship program. Some, like Korhonen, who managed to ace several college-level courses despite working 12-hour, rotating shifts at the mill and raising two girls on her own, may look into finishing their four-year degrees and going into a totally different field.
The retraining is sure to have an impact on many displaced Camas mill workers. Of the nearly 250 people affected by the mill layoffs, Korhonen said many are still unemployed.
“We have 92 that are unemployed and 14 still in the mill, set to be laid off in the next few months,” she said. “There are 67 employed outside the mill and, of those, about five stayed in the industry.”
The remaining displaced workers include 39 who retired, 12 who are already in training programs and seven whose status is unknown to WorkSource peer counselors at this time.
The TAA benefits could help many displaced workers who have either been unable to find work since they left the mill or those who have jobs that pay substantially less than their positions at the mill.
Korhonen has an important message for every displaced mill worker hoping to take advantage of the new benefits, though: “The most important thing is to come to WorkSource first,” she said.
That’s because eligible workers have a few very important hoops to jump through to ensure they receive their benefits and don’t void the entire package, Korhonen explained.
For instance, although the TAA benefits will restart unemployment payments for the next two years — and pay 72 percent of displaced workers’ health insurance premiums if they’re signed up with COBRA — the benefits only kick in once the person has had their retraining program formally approved by WorkSource.
Likewise, although many former mill workers who have found new jobs may be eligible for the retraining benefits and restarted unemployment payments if their new job pays 80 percent or less than their gross wages from the mill, they will become ineligible if they quit their new jobs before getting a retraining program formally approved through WorkSource.
“You cannot quit your job, even if you’re eligible for this,” Korhonen cautioned. “I wish you could put that in all caps. It’s so important that they know this — they cannot quit their job until their training packet is done and in place and approved by WorkSource.”
WorkSource will host orientation trainings for displaced workers from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 6, and Wednesday, Feb. 20, at WorkSource Vancouver, 204 S.E. Stone Mill Drive, ste. 215, in Vancouver.
The other hiccup in the process could come from G-P, Korhonen said. The company is required to send a contact list of all the workers displaced in the most recent mill shutdown to the state in order for the Washington DOL to approve the displaced mill workers eligible for the TAA retraining benefits.
Korhonen, who doesn’t mince words about her displeasure of the way G-P has handled the mill layoffs and closures, worries company leaders will throw another wrench in the workers’ already nearly year-long wait for benefits.
“They could stall,” she said of G-P. “I wouldn’t put it past them.”
Asked by The Post-Record Tuesday when the company might send that list of contacts, Kristi Ward, G-P’s public affairs manager for the Camas mill, said: “We have received the request, and we are working on pulling the information together.”
Union president: ‘historically, one machine cannot pay to maintain that site’
In his original petition to secure TAA benefits for laid-off Camas mill workers, Palleson told the 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.
The DOL’s Office of Trade Adjustment Assistance ruled against the mill workers’ petition for benefits in early August 2018. Palleson appealed the decision Aug. 16, 2018, 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 union president also said the DOL had used the wrong time period when considering the request for TAA benefits, stating: “A decision to close a facility like a pulp mill is made years in advance.”
Palleson told The Post-Record in August and again last week that, despite Georgia-Pacific’s insistence the company had to shut down the office paper line and halt pulp mill production due to a lack of customer demand, there is a shortage of uncoated free sheet paper and 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 G-P’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 who was interested in the Camas mill.”
Palleson said a businessman named Rahul Kejriwal, who manages a paper stationery manufacturer in Mumbai, India, had expressed interest in buying the Camas mill, restarting the “Roaring 20” machine and possibly even reopening the pulping facility.
“To me, it’s maddening that G-P refuses to talk to anybody about restarting (the office paper line),” Palleson said. “G-P did tell us officially that the equipment was going to be demolished.”
Asked about the remaining paper towel line, which employs more than 100 workers at the Camas mill, Palleson said he would be surprised if the company keeps the line going too much longer.
“Historically, one machine cannot pay the costs to maintain that site,” Palleson said. “I’d certainly be amazed if it’s there five years from now. That’s one of the reasons we pushed to get the entire site certified. … If they close the rest of the mill within two years of the certification date, they would all be certified.”
If G-P decides to lay off the rest of the mill’s workers in the next two years, those workers will be covered by the TAA benefits.
If G-P were to displace workers after the Jan. 22, 2021 date, Palleson said the union would need to file another request for TAA benefits and go through the process again.