Governor visits IP workers

Published 8:47 am Wednesday, February 10, 2010

FRANKLIN—Bob McDonnell used his first trip to Franklin since being inaugurated as governor to visit with International Paper Co. mill employees and local officials to discuss ways the state can help the 1,100 workers who will be affected by the mill’s closure this spring.

“We know this is a terrible blow to the community,” McDonnell said. “We understand that International Paper has had to make some tough business decisions as to what is in its interests. My goal today is to listen and to learn a little bit about what is in store for the employees, what efforts we are making for the retraining and placement of our citizens, and to learn a little bit more about what International Paper’s plans are for the plant.”

McDonnell added, “We are very encouraged with a number of inquiries from significant businesses around the country that have expressed some interest in possibly purchasing the plant or otherwise doing business in the vicinity, which will help tremendously.”

One of the workers McDonnell met was Teresa McCaskey, a paper machine inspector from Carrsville. On Jan. 23, she will have been an employee at the mill for 23 years.

“Are there other programs that you can put in act for us to help us?” McCaskey asked the governor. “There are people out here that don’t have jobs and they’re getting food stamps. We’re not going to have the income that we had before, and it’s either (going to be that) or you’re not going to eat, or you’re not going to be able to buy your essentials, or you’re not going to be able to pay for your home and you’re going to lose your home.”

After she met with McDonnell, McCaskey told several members of the media that she believes she will need to find another job after her days of working for IP are over.

“I would love to be a nurse, but I’ve been out of school for so long,” McCaskey said. “I don’t know if I can do it emotionally and educational wise. I would have to have a lot of prep. Two years ain’t going to make it. That’s why I feel like I’m going to have to go work.”

McDonnell met behind closed doors in an office at the mill with local officials, including Franklin Mayor Jim Councill, Isle of Wight County Supervisor Phillip Bradshaw, Southampton County Administrator Mike Johnson, Isle of Wight County Administrator Doug Caskey, Franklin-Southampton Economic Development Inc. President John Smolak, and Isle of Wight County Department of Economic Development director Lisa Perry. The meeting lasted about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, groups of IP employees are set to be laid off about every two weeks beginning with 19 workers on April 4. Most of the mill workers will reportedly be gone by July 1.

Carroll Story, president of Local 1488 of the United Steelworkers of America, said Tuesday that there are currently about 700 hourly and 110 salaried workers at the mill.

“We’re going to have waves of employees that go out from here forward,” Story said. “The paper machines will shut down on April 15. As the machines shut down the rest of the mill kind of follows. That’s when the waves of employees will go out.”

Story said IP sent a letter dated Feb. 1 to local government officials in compliance with the federal government’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, Act. He said the letter officially gave notice that 19 mill employees would be let go on April 4.

“There will be a group (of layoffs) about every two weeks as the need for workers is reduced,” Story said, adding that a large group, perhaps 300 workers or more, would be laid off in mid-May, about one month after the paper machines are shut down.

Asked if he had an estimate as to the average size a group of laid off workers would be, Story said, “It’s hard to predict. It depends on the needs. (IP) has got to button down the wood yard, the north end of the mill, keep it ready, keep heat on the boilers and keep steam in them. That’s something you don’t shut down because they will deteriorate. They’re going to have to keep some processes going.”

Story said the back end of the mill — which contains the converting, roll finishing and sheet finishing processes — employs about 250 people and would be among the last jobs phased out.

“That will be the last thing because they have to take product off of the machines and convert it into paper,” Story said, adding that he believes most workers will be let go by July 1. “I’m sure there will be a small group of employees still here after then, for the purpose of environmental issues, (such as) watching over the ponds.”

Story said McDonnell can do a lot as governor to help the displaced workers, including using his office to encourage the federal government to continue offering $25 a week for retraining and education. The $25 — part of the stimulus package that is set to expire this summer — is in addition to the $378 a week in unemployment benefits that mill workers will receive.

Getting the U.S. to compete globally for manufacturing jobs was another concern.

“It’s important that the administration in Virginia do everything they can to create some type of incentive for companies to come here,” Story said. “So many times we see countries overseas offer American companies incentives, such as no taxes and no environmental regulations. They go over there and they’re just looking at profit.”

He added, “It’s a shame, but International Paper can actually make a product in Brazil, and put it on the port at Norfolk, cheaper than we can make it here. Something is wrong with that picture. And that’s why we are where we are.”