Sawmill workers to get aid

Published 8:47 am Friday, November 27, 2009

FRANKLIN—About 100 former International Paper Co. sawmill workers are eligible to receive assistance from a federal program, U.S. Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb, D-Va., said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s congressional delegation is working on securing the same benefits for the approximately 1,100 IP paper mill workers who will lose their jobs by spring.

The senators said the U.S. Department of Labor approved an application for 123 people to receive assistance from the Transition Adjustment Assistance program, which helps workers who lose their jobs as a result of foreign trade.

“They pushed hard on that,” Franklin Mayor Jim Councill said Wednesday of Warner’s and Webb’s efforts to get the assistance approved. “We are very grateful that those who had lost their jobs earlier have qualified. It’s a great help to those workers.”

TAA offers a variety of benefits and services, including job retraining, income support while enrolled full time in a training program, job search and relocation allowances, and a tax credit to help offset the cost of health insurance. The program also provides wage supplements to certain re-employed, trade-affected workers age 50 and older.

“While these job losses are separate from the recent devastating announcement that IP will shutter its Franklin paper mill, we are hopeful that the Labor Department will acknowledge that many of the same market forces link these two events,” Warner said.

Added Webb: “Due to the effects of foreign imports, this federal worker assistance is critical to the livelihood of the workers in Franklin. Providing (it) will help these workers make the difficult transition to new jobs at a time when Virginia’s manufacturing industry faces hard times.”

IP closed the sawmill on May 31, ending 154 years of operation along the banks of the Blackwater River. At the time, the company said it was shuttering the facility because of a lack of orders and a downturn in the U.S. lumber and housing markets.

Wednesday’s joint announcement by Warner and Webb blamed an increase in foreign imports for the decline in product demand.

“We must address the larger issue of U.S. trade policies that are unfair and disproportionately affect American workers,” Webb said. “These policies are a matter of economic fairness.”

According to the sawmill workers’ application, TAA benefits do not appear to have been extended to the 25 former employees of IP’s sheet converting plant or to 10 former Converting Innovation Center workers, all of whom lost their jobs before June 30. The company announced that it was letting those employees go at the same time it announced the sawmill closure, again blaming the job losses on a lack or orders.

Wednesday’s announcement, which came from Warner’s office, also said members of Virginia’s congressional delegation is “working closely with local, regional and state officials, and company and union representatives, to prepare and submit an application to the Labor Department seeking similar TAA certification and benefits” for paper mill workers.

“Hopefully the same thing will happen in a shorter time frame for the existing paper mill workers,” Councill said. “Warner has reassured me several times that they are actively monitoring (the application for the paper mill workers) in the Labor Department as we speak.

“The reason for it being slow is because there’s a backlog of (applications) from across the country. Nonetheless, (Warner and Webb) are paying particular vigilance to that, and they will massage that to the very best of their ability to get the same benefits for all the paper mill employees.”