Local Canfor workers among those taking government-sponsored early retirement.  (Black Press file photo)

Local workers take up government retirement offer

Program to buffer forest industry closures

Sixty forestry workers in the Houston, Fort St. James and Vanderhoof areas have taken up a provincial government offer to retire earlier than first anticpated.

The cost is $2,638,413 and will provide a financial bridge for the workers until their regular pensions take hold.

First announced in 2019, the retirement bridging program is intended to make room for younger workers just beginning or early on in their working lives.

It and other assistance programs were in response to province-wide temporary or permanent closures of sawmills across the province beginning in 2018.

Workers at the Canfor mill here and at Canfor’s Plateau mill near Vanderhoof went through a series of extended closures with the company saying costs tied to American lumber tariffs and the high price of raw material in B.C. outstripped its ability to make a profit.

“Demand has been high for the retirement bridging funding. In over 100 communities in B.C.’s Interior and coastal regions, this program has helped 700 people retire early through $30 million in benefits and created 400 forestry jobs for younger workers in communities since the program started in in 2019,” said provincial labour minister Harry Bains.

The early retirement program is worth $40 million in total with the remaining $10 million expected to be disbursed this year. Aside from the provincial money, employers of workers who did retire early also contributed financially.

In Prince George, 51 millworkers are to receive nearly $2.4 million while in Quesnel, $4.1 million is going to 95 workers. That community had the highest participation rate in the province.

Workers in Williams Lake, Clearwater, Mackenzie and Kelowna also received money, said Bains.

More than 600 applications were received by millworkers from around the province who wanted to take advantage of the bridging program.

As of the end of 2019, there have been four permanent mill closures, affecting between 500 to 700 workers and 13 indefinite closures affecting around 1,000 workers.

Depending upon a worker’s individual situation, up to $75,000 could have been available if deciding 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 also agree 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.

The retirement must also not create a skills shortage at the worker’s place of employment.

The province also opened up employment offices in 100 Mile House, Fort St. James, Fort St. John, Mackenzie and Clearwater.

Bains said those offices dealt with more than 5,500 people with 800 given information on job and career training.

“The program has helped displaced millworkers find employment, such as building log homes, working on major projects like LNG Canada, Trans-Mountain Pipeline and Site C, and starting their own businesses,” he said.