ATC Panels nears closure

Published 8:19 am Friday, March 6, 2009

FRANKLIN—On Thursday afternoon, ATC Panels’ particle board mill in Isle of Wight County was eerily quiet. Workers had been sent home early from their usual 12-hour shifts because there were no new orders left to fill. The empty parking lot was another signal that the business here is facing extinction.

It’s uncertain how long the mill can keep its doors open, workers were told this week.

“We don’t know how long we will keep going,” said Plant Manager Tom Garrahan. “We might hear word tomorrow or next week. But I know for sure we won’t be here for months in the future.”

Garrahan said he had the difficult task of giving this message to his staff Monday night after the North Carolina-based company’s talks with bankers made it unclear whether the mill’s 34 employees, 21 of whom are hourly, would receive a paycheck this week.

“As soon as we found out Monday that there might be issues with payroll, we went to the workers and presented them with the option of not working or choosing to work knowing that they might not get paid,” Garrahan said.

Union representative Calvin Blow said employees chose to stay and work.

“It was either stay, work and perhaps you would get paid, or not work and definitely not get paid at all,” he said.

Blow said ATC employees typically get paid every Friday, but they won’t know until Monday if they will be paid for this week.

“We are hoping to get paid Monday, but ever since this new company took over, you never can tell what will happen,” he said. “We hear one thing on Monday and everything can be totally different by Tuesday.”

The mill, which used to be owned by Union Camp Corp., changed hands several times after International Paper bought all of Union Camp’s assets. The particle-board plant was sold to Aconcagua Holdings, a company formed in May 2004 by several Chilean investors.

The mill, located just outside the Franklin city limits in Isle of Wight County, produces particle boards used for building furniture, cabinets and the like. At its height, ATC employed more than 130 people, but changes in the furniture industry forced officials to start making cuts several years ago.

Garrahan said ATC once had contracts with companies like Basset and Ethan Allen, but once those companies started purchasing materials cheaper overseas, demand for ATC’s products began to decline.

ATC’s troubles were felt locally when 90 workers were let go in the fall of 2007. In October of last year, ATC announced another series of cuts that left 34 more workers displaced, cutting its workforce by nearly half, officials said.

Garrahan also said that operations at two other ATC plants, one in Ontario, Canada, and another in North Carolina, were completely stopped months ago.

Garrahan, who faces unemployment himself, said that after the last round of layoffs at the Franklin mill, the crew that stayed behind made extreme sacrifices to keep the mill afloat as long as possible.

He said that since the plant had only been running at 25 percent of its production capacity, remaining employees had started chipping in to do jobs that they had never done before.

“The employees we have left are very seasoned, experienced workers who all have 20 to 30 years’ experience,” he said. “They have been through multiple business cycles and have been very understanding, patient and cooperative. I really appreciate all that these people have given.”

Blow said the workers have become like a family.

“Most of us have been there so long, we know everything about each other and our families,” he said. “Before all this, it was a place that was fun to go to work.”

Now, the 34 remaining employees are faced with the reality that they will soon join the growing ranks of the unemployed.

Angela Lawhorne with the Virginia Unemployment Commission said she has been working closely with human-resources officials at ATC to ease the new transition. Lawhorne said ATC, in November, qualified and received Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, for all of its employees.

TAA helps trade-affected workers who have lost their jobs as a result of increased imports or shifts in production out of the United States.

Lawhorne said TAA program services and benefits are designed to facilitate workers in getting back to work quickly by offering tuition assistance, extended unemployment benefits and other training that helps them until they can find new work.

Blow said he is unsure what many of the remaining employees will do after working at one place for so many decades.

“Most of us starting working there right out of high school, and that’s all we know,” he said. “It would be tough to find another job at our ages that could support our families.”

Blow said he and several other union officials are already taking steps to make sure that workers get the right amount of severance pay, holiday pay and retirement benefits owed them.

“We have notified our lawyers, but I think most fear that because the owners are foreign, they might just shut down and pack up, never to be heard from again,” he said.