After the mill closes - The Orca

After the mill closes

Dene Moore

Dene Moore: the provincial government’s support program for laid off forestry workers is restrictive, and not enough to put food on the table.

Kim Thomas started working weekends at the Chasm sawmill as a 16-year-old high school student. After her graduation she returned to work the summers while she was in college. Indeed, she was in college in no small part because she worked at the mill every summer. Mill money is good money.

When she returned with a diploma in hand to Clinton, a charming Gold Rush-era village known for the antique and unique shops that meander along the highway heading north, jobs in the travel industry were scant. She took her resume to the mill and started work less than a week later. That was October 19, 1993.

Kim Thomas, in front of the last lift she processed at her sawmill stacker after 26 years.

Over 26 years working at the Chasm mill, she worked her way through many different jobs. When West Fraser announced the closure of the mill earlier this year, Kim was a stacker operator. She earned $31.00 an hour.

It was a very good wage – enough to help one daughter attending university, another daughter to play volleyball, her son to enjoy hockey and soccer. Both her high school-aged children are in 4H, as well. Her ex-husband also worked at the mill.

“I’m one of the lucky ones.”

“You have that nice truck, you have that nice home. You could afford it – and now you can’t,” Kim says.

Kim received funding from WorkBC to retrain as a home care aide at a course offered by NVIT in nearby Cache Creek.

“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she says.

Her sister was not so lucky.

She had her severance payments already in the bank – two weeks’ worth of pay for every year of employment – and so she didn’t qualify for funding.

The government announced in September a $69-million support program for the 3,000+ forest industry workers and contractors affected by more than a dozen mill closures and curtailments throughout B.C. over the past year.

But you have to read the fine print.

Displaced workers must use their severance payments and pension payouts first before they are eligible for funding. They are also ineligible for Employment Insurance payments until they exhaust those funds. By the time that happens, they are no longer eligible for EI.

For the more junior mill workers who might qualify for EI, the maximum weekly payment is a taxable $562 per week. For many mill workers, who have mortgages and car payments based on their higher-than-average income, that’s hardly enough to pay the bills and still put food on the table.

The lumber yard at West Fraser

Some displaced mill workers are told they don’t qualify for retraining because they have received severance and pension payouts. Others are told that they don’t qualify because they don’t have enough money to sustain them during training, which doesn’t cover accommodations, food, etc. And they can’t work while they’re receiving funding.

So, some workers have too much money to qualify, and some have too little, and they can’t do anything to change it.

The $69 million includes $40 million for retirement bridging; $15 million in short-term forest employment in fire prevention and resiliency projects, also known as make-work projects; $12 million in “additional programs and employer grants for skills training”; $2 million for a new job placement coordination office to track affected forestry workers.

Some workers have too much money to qualify, and some have too little, and they can’t do anything to change it.

To get retirement bridging, workers must agree to permanently vacate their position and all seniority, and to not return to work in forestry sector or any other work for a period of 18 months. It’s a big commitment to make when rumours are swirling that this group or that want to buy the mill; that the outlook is improving and Company X or Company Y just invested a ton of money on upgrading the mill; that the closures were coordinated as a political ploy to force the government to cut stumpage rates.

An official in the Labour Ministry says the first job placement office opened in 100 Mile on Nov. 18. Others will be opening in Fort St. James, Fort St. John, Mackenzie and Clearwater with dedicated staff to support affected forestry workers.

Almost 500 forestry workers have applied for the retirement bridging program to date. No funds have been dispensed yet, but they expect the first payments to go out soon.

And the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Training is funding skills training in two affected communities to a total of $404,262. More training programs are expected to begin in spring 2020.

The news release also promised unspecified funding for community support programs for short-term assistance to communities more profoundly hit by the loss of a major employer, but unless my math is wrong the above adds up to $69 million already.

Certainly, Clinton and 100 Mile House could be considered two of the communities more profoundly hit by the closures. Clinton has a population 641; 100 Mile House a population of 1,980, though those numbers don’t reflect the reality of rural BC, where most residents live outside the core community, but rely on its services.

Kim knows at least five families that have left. Others have the family living in Clinton and one parent working elsewhere.

“I know a lot of people are sad that they had to uproot their families and move,” she says. “It’s just not the employees, it’s also their families.”

While WorkBC is paying for Kim’s training, she lives off her payouts from West Fraser.

Screen shot of the last log processed at West Fraser. (Kelly Thomas)

“Without that job, I’m just making my payments and I’m burning through my severance,” she says.

There are extended care homes in 100 Mile and Ashcroft and an assisted living facility is supposed to break ground in Clinton in the next year. Kim is optimistic she can stay in Clinton.

“I just need five years until my son graduates,” she says. “I feel if he went to a bigger school he would be withdrawn and not want to learn. He’s in Grade 8. I feel he gets more one-on-one at this school than if we moved to a bigger city. And their dad is in this community and I never want to uproot my kids away from their dad.”

Kim will likely earn at least $10 an hour less working as a care aide but that, at least, is an unlikely sector to see a slump. But until she has a new job, the worries continue.

“My kids are worried, too. ‘What are you going to do? How are we going to live? How’s dad going to live?’”

Dene Moore is an award-winning journalist and writer. A news editor and reporter for The Canadian Press news agency for 16 years, Moore is now a freelance journalist living in the South Cariboo. Moore’s two decades in daily journalism took her as far afield as Kandahar as a war correspondent and the Innu communities of Labrador. She has worked in newsrooms in Vancouver, Montreal, Regina, Saskatoon, St. John’s and Edmonton. She has been published in the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s magazine, the New York Times and the Toronto Star, among others. She is a Habs fan and believes this is the year.