On Friday morning, managers somberly gathered at the Tolko office in Kelowna to call 140 workers one by one to tell them the lumber mill will close forever Jan. 8.
“Calling each employee was important with news like this,” Tolko communications adviser Chris Downey told The Okanagan Weekend.
“Our HR team was also on site to help workers. We’re telling them how severance and benefits will be paid and referring them to programs like the ones at WorkBC.”
While Friday’s news was official and devastating, the writing had been on the wall for months.
On July 12, Tolko permanently scrapped its second shift at the Kelowna mill, putting 90 people out of work.
The 140 staff on the remaining shift endured a six-week shutdown Aug. 6 to Sept. 15, only to be told an indefinite closure would start Sept. 15.
Earlier this week, it was as if permanent closure was being announced without explicitly saying so.
Tolko started to call the closure “indeterminate,” and WorkBC created programs for Tolko workers who wanted to start looking for another job or take a training course to start another career.
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 curtailment with four-day work weeks.
After using up all paid holiday time, most Tolko workers have been on employment insurance of 55% of their average wage to a maximum of $562 a week.
Tolko isn’t disclosing what severance will be.
Impacted workers will no doubt be financially strapped and will have to make decisions about finding other work, likely at lower pay than they made at Tolko, or retraining for another career.
“At this time, our thoughts are with impacted employees in Kelowna,” said Tolko president Brad Thorlakson.
“This is a difficult decision.”
Job losses and company closures are desperate last measures.
In Tolko’s case, it’s even more poignant because there’s been a lumber mill on the north downtown waterfront since 1930.
It truly is the end of an era, a blow to the community and another sign the forestry industry is in dire straits.
“The industry is facing many challenges that are beyond our control, and tough decisions are necessary to ensure our future sustainability,” said Tolko vice-president Troy Connolly.
“We know our people in Kelowna have done everything in their power to make the mill successful. They have gone above and beyond. Sadly, this has nothing to do with them or their efforts. Unfortunately, with B.C. log costs, the mill is no longer cost-competitive.”
At issue is high log costs and low lumber prices, which make B.C. wood products uncompetitive on both the domestic and world markets.
Once the backbone of the B.C. economy, forestry is now a shadow of its former self, with more than 90 curtailments and 10 closures at mills over the past year.
Westside-Kelowna Liberal MLA Ben Stewart is critical of the NDP government for letting this happen.
“The government has been silent and inactive in a time when we need to be standing up for forestry in B.C.,” said Stewart.
At issue, according to Stewart, is the four-pronged assault on the forest industry in the form of high stumpage fees for cutting trees on Crown land, the carbon tax rising to $50 a ton from $40, the employer health tax going up and ICBC increasing rates for commercial logging trucks.
“Those are four costs the government could have been lowering to help forestry companies be more competitive,” said Stewart.
“Instead, it did nothing. This crisis was avoidable. It’s especially disturbing because Tolko Kelowna was a modern and competitive plant. The Kelowna situation is no longer salvageable, and now we’re at risk of having no forestry industry in B.C. in a decade.”