Tolko mill closing in Kelowna

Unionized workers at the Tolko Kelowna lumber mill, which closes forever Jan. 8, qualify for severance of two weeks’ pay for every year of service.

Now that the end is here for the Tolko lumber mill in Kelowna, the long process of sorting out severance, job finding, retraining and bridging to retirement begins.

“We’re meeting with the company continually to figure out what severance looks like,” said Pat McGregor, president of the United Steelworkers Union Local 1-423.

“There’s been such a long period of indefinite layoffs that workers have been in limbo for a long time.”

Vernon-based Tolko officially pulled the plug on the Kelowna plant last Friday, announcing its permanent closure Jan. 8.

The date is moot since Tolko on July 12 scrapped its second shift at the Kelowna mill, putting 90 people out of work, and the remaining 140 haven’t worked since Aug. 6.

Nothing will happen at the mill between now and the official shuttering date except decommissioning and cleanup.

Technically, unionized workers are still on indefinite layoff until the official closure date of Jan. 8 rolls around.

That means most of them remain on employment insurance, which provides 55% of average wage to a maximum of $562 a week.

Once officially released from Tolko, Jan. 8 severance of two weeks’ pay for every year worked at the company should kick in.

McGregor wishes it were more, but that’s the number negotiated into the collective agreement between the Steelworkers and Tolko.

Workers with 30-40 years at Tolko may be able to use the severance as a bridge to retirement when they start collecting pensions.

The provincial government’s $69-million forest worker support programs has a retirement bridging component, too, but McGregor said workers have to sacrifice their severance to tap into it.

“It’s better for a 30- to 40-year employee to take their severance and not take part the government program,” he said.

“But we are sitting down with workers to see what parts of the $69-million government fund may be for them.”

Most of the 90 workers laid off when Tolko Kelowna went from two daily shifts to one on July 12 had five years’ seniority or less.

“Some of them are still on employment insurance, but many have found other work,” said McGregor.

“The 140 on the remaining shift all tended to have at least 10 years’ seniority, with many of them with 30 to 40 years with the company. It’s going to be harder for them to replace the good wage they made at Tolko with another job.”

Tolko is encouraging impacted workers to apply for jobs at other Tolko mills in Armstrong, Lake Country, Lumby and Lavington.

However, most of those facilities are already on four-day work weeks and likely aren’t hiring. Even if there is hiring, it certainly won’t be for the scores of jobs the displaced workers will be looking for.

The provincial government’s programs are outlined at ForestryWorkersSupport.gov.bc.ca.

“Staff with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development have already contacted the City of Kelowna regarding community support grants,” said parliamentary secretary Ravi Kahlon.

“In addition, I will be reaching out to Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran as well as Pat McGregor, president of United Steelworkers 1-423,which represents the workers, to offer my support.”

WorkBC is offering free support to displaced workers, including one-on-one case management, to help them figure our what financial supports, skills training and job search services are for them.

The entire B.C. forest industry is in dire straits with high log costs and wood prices making B.C. wood products uncompetitive on both the domestic and international markets.

The Opposition B.C. Liberal Party suggests stumpage fees for cutting trees on Crown land and other taxes and levies should be reduced to help make forestry companies competitive once again.