October 15, 1995 in Nation/World

Uprooted Lives Workers Struggle As Sawmills Go Extinct Post Falls Employees Grapple With Fears, Training Programs

Susan Drumheller And Eric Torbenson S Staff writer
 

Jobless Louisiana-Pacific millworkers tell this joke about their future: “Retraining - you want fries with that?”

Workers say dark humor, rumors and questions about the future dominate conversations at the mill, which is limping toward closure next month.

The loss of another sawmill in the Inland Northwest surprises few in the industry.

A dearth of federal timber, tougher environmental laws and competition from Canadian sawmills have triggered a massive downsizing in the region’s lumber economy. A once-steady river of lumber has trickled to a precious few logs. Many say it’s only a matter of time before more mills are closed.

“If you can’t find wood, you’re just not going to make it,” said Paul F. Ehinger, an analyst who tracks Pacific Northwest mill closures. “And beyond the towns themselves, nobody gives a damn.”

Since 1988, the number of sawmills in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Northern California has dropped more than a third, to 464 from 739, Ehinger said.

In Eastern Washington, Vaagen Bros. Lumber Co. closed its Ione sawmill this year, snuffing out the jobs of nearly 100 millworkers. The company is negotiating for up to $7.75 million in government loans to prop up its mills in Colville and Republic. Also, Omak Wood Products in Okanogan County has just arranged a similar $4.9 million loan.

The debate about what’s causing the region’s sawmills to suffer ended last month - as far as 113 Post Falls millworkers are concerned.

Louisiana-Pacific Corp. announced its mill would officially close on Nov. 19. But for the past week, the mill has employed only a skeleton staff. Everyone else is temporarily laid off until the few remaining logs are ready to be cut into lumber.

Anxiety dictates much of the talk at the mill. Laughter provides some relief.

“It was kind of like a death,” said Terry Lewis, 38, a 19-year veteran of the mill. “Your heart kind of sinks. Then it hits: ‘Now I’ve got to go out and find a job.’

“That’s something I’ve never had to do.”

Workers who’ve put on the same hard hat for years struggle with switching to a new job. It takes time, patience and resolve, said Larry Hurtling, an Idaho Department of Employment retraining specialist.

“There’s a lot of good programs out there for them,” Hurtling said. “Sometimes it takes us three or four times explaining the same programs before it sinks in that they’ve got to do something.

“Some of the local employers will snatch a few of these workers up,” Hurtling said. “But for a lot of them, we just hope to help them through the transition.”

Lewis, whose family has worked at the mill for a combined 78 years, isn’t the only one with strong feelings about the shutdown.

Leo Harris, 55, was hoping to retire from the plant. He’s worked there 23 years, most recently as a handyman.

Harris has no special job skills. The easygoing, balding man is a tinkerer at heart, but he knows he won’t get paid much for that. And he knows it won’t be easy to compete in the job market at his age.

“I don’t care what anyone says,” Harris said, “losing your job is a personal loss. There’s an emotional attachment.”

At a recent meeting with Job Service officials, millworkers were told that age discrimination is “alive and well” in the work force.

“I was hoping I could go another seven years,” Harris said, swinging a bony fist in a youthful punch.

Harris has no idea what he’ll do next, except perhaps take advantage of the federal retraining program, which pays for two years of school while he collects unemployment.

Co-worker Ed Rousar, 49, is confident he’ll find other work as a mechanic. He’s gained valuable skills at L-P keeping the aging machinery running for at least half his 20 years at the plant.

“I can fix anything … except I can’t work a childproof lighter,” he said, laughing as he tried to light his cigarette.

If he doesn’t find work immediately, Rousar knows he and his wife, Denise, can live off unemployment.

His children are grown. Rousar doesn’t believe in credit cards, and has paid off his home and vehicles.

Rousar surprised himself by sticking with LP for 20 years. He never intended to stay so long, but the pay was good, and he had children to raise.

The average wage at the mill was around $14 an hour. Rousar makes $12.45.

Rousar is one of the mill’s few workers who isn’t laid off at the moment.

“Everybody’s trying to be upbeat, but you can see it in their eyes,” Rousar said. “Some people are walking around like zombies.”

A few fortunate Post Falls workers are filling openings in other Louisiana-Pacific mills.

John Shuey, for instance, is working in the Chilco mill now. Though he has no guarantees, he hopes he can stay there.

The 28-year-old millwright has been through a shutdown before. In 1991, in Coos Bay, Ore., he turned down retraining, saying he couldn’t afford it. With a family to support, two car payments and a mortgage, he will do the same now if he loses the Chilco job.

“I can’t live two days on unemployment,” Shuey said. “It’s just not enough money.”

The same goes for Lewis, who makes $12.45 an hour as a millwright.

With three teenage sons, vehicle payments and $70,000 in house loans, he doubts he’ll take the retraining program.

“If it weren’t for my wife having a job right now, there’s a good chance we’d lose this place,” he said as he drank coffee at his house near Fighting Creek.

At his elbow is the computer he bought his sons last Christmas from Smith’s Home Furnishings. He has to laugh at his bad luck. Now that Smith’s is bankrupt, his warranty’s no good.

While waiting to be called back to the mill for the last run of logs, Lewis spends his days sending out resumes and applying for jobs at area sawmills. He counsels his sons to steer clear of a timber career. His eldest son types his resume on the home computer for him.

Lewis envisions his sons’ lives as vastly different from his own or his two brothers’. The three men followed in the footsteps of their father, Robert, by taking jobs at the mill.

“When I was going through school, I told myself, ‘I’m going to be just like my old man,”’ recalled Lewis. “And that’s what people tell me now, ‘You’re just like your old man.”’

Robert Lewis, 63, retired for health reasons from the mill in 1993 after 38 years. Though he’s sad the mill is closing, he’s confident his sons will find work, because “they’re not people to stand still,” he said.

The family learned last winter that the elder Lewis was terminally ill with cancer. The news came shortly after Cheryl Lewis, Terry’s wife, nearly died when blood vessels burst.

“Our year’s just been going downhill,” Terry Lewis said.

From Colville to Post Falls, a way of life that employed generations of families is slipping away.

More than anything else, Rousar, the 20-year veteran of L-P, is worried about losing his friends at the mill. He, Lewis and another millworker had just returned from a Puget Sound fishing trip when they heard about the shutdown.

“That’s the three of us there,” Rousar said, pointing to a photograph on his living room wall. “Things like that won’t happen now.”

The workers have few bitter words for their employer, except over a recent insult.

Soon after the management announced the shutdown, it put locks all over the mill to keep workers from stealing equipment and materials.

“Here they’ve trusted us all these years … It was like a slap in the face,” Lewis said.

Overall, they don’t blame the company for their lost jobs or the insecurity that faces them. They say they understand the company has to make money.

“Nobody owes you a living,” a resigned Harris said. “Nobody owes you a living.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: RETRAINING PROGRAMS The 113 workers laid off at Louisiana-Pacific Corp.’s Post Falls sawmill have several choices for retraining: North Idaho College offers long-term programs at the Coeur d’Alene campus. These class programs last from nine months to two years, covering skills ranging from auto repair to carpentry, said Don Bjorn, counselor for the Applied Technology area at NIC. The programs are taken for college credit and can be developed into college degrees. Students wanting to start the programs may have to wait until next fall when new courses begin. Bjorn said the workers could take some courses during the spring semester to catch up on English or math skills, or take some required courses toward a degree from NIC. Short-term courses are taught at the new Work Force Training Center for NIC in Post Falls. These courses offer a chance to update computer skills and other trades, said Robert Ketchum, associate dean of instruction. The benefits that L-P workers receive will pay for two years of retraining and will likely pay for the short courses at the training center. The conditions of the benefits will allow the workers to have low-paying jobs while going through the retraining.

Cut in Spokane edition.

This sidebar appeared with the story: RETRAINING PROGRAMS The 113 workers laid off at Louisiana-Pacific Corp.’s Post Falls sawmill have several choices for retraining: North Idaho College offers long-term programs at the Coeur d’Alene campus. These class programs last from nine months to two years, covering skills ranging from auto repair to carpentry, said Don Bjorn, counselor for the Applied Technology area at NIC. The programs are taken for college credit and can be developed into college degrees. Students wanting to start the programs may have to wait until next fall when new courses begin. Bjorn said the workers could take some courses during the spring semester to catch up on English or math skills, or take some required courses toward a degree from NIC. Short-term courses are taught at the new Work Force Training Center for NIC in Post Falls. These courses offer a chance to update computer skills and other trades, said Robert Ketchum, associate dean of instruction. The benefits that L-P workers receive will pay for two years of retraining and will likely pay for the short courses at the training center. The conditions of the benefits will allow the workers to have low-paying jobs while going through the retraining.


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