Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross says he’s ready to back up any application Skeena Sawmills makes for government assistance to re-open its closed sawmill and the next-door Skeena Bioenergy pellet plant and put people back to work.
“The impact is enormous. I feel for the families and the small businesses that depend on the mill,” said Ross Feb. 9, the day after Skeena Sawmills closed for an indeterminate period, affecting more than 150 direct employees as well as contractors and suppliers.
The company cited weak lumber markets and high operating costs combined with the inability to acquire enough economical and quality logs as reasons for the closure.
It said a re-opening cannot take place until the market for its wood improves.
Although the government has promised $90 million over three years to create forest industry manufacturing jobs and a further $50 million to move fire-damaged wood from remote areas to pulp mills, Ross said that may not go far.
“Some of these mills, the plans call for spending upward of $100 milion or more,” he said.
Still, Ross said he was commited to advocating for Skeena Sawmills in any application it made to the province.
“Certainly I’ll be there,” he said.
The company said it is taking the closure period to evaluate the economic value of the fibre it controls and see how that can fit into its re-opening plans.
Meanwhile the first vice-president of the United Steelworkers local that represents the workers said they are more than likely making their own plans for their futures.
Rick Nelson of Local 1-1937 said workers could be applying for employment insurance or moving to other jobs during the closure period.
“There’s been no discussion of a closure, a permanent closure or a partial permanent closure of a portion of the plant,” he said.
And should that have been declared by the company, Nelson said that would have triggered severance payments as laid out in the contract the union has with Skeena Sawmills.
Nelson said the closure mirrors either permanent or temporary forest industry shutdowns around the province and that what is affecting the mill and its employees is not unique.
Workers can, if they qualify, apply to a provincial government program that provides an income until other pension plans kick in.
The early retirement bridging program was introduced in 2019 and reinforced in 2021 for workers 55 years or older who have been affected one or another by the forest industry downturn.
Depending upon a worker’s individual situation, up to $75,000 is made available if the worker decided to retire earlier than otherwise planned.
A worker who decided to retire early must have been at least 55 years of age and have worked in a B.C. mill for the last two consecutive years and have been affected by closures since May 2019.
The worker must have also agreed to permanently vacate his or her position, give up seniority and not return to work in a B.C. forestry job for at least 18 months.