Worker aid package details are elusive

Province announces $69 million for affected forest workers

Details remain vague as to how the $69 million aid package for workers affected by sawmill closures and operations reductions announced by the provincial government last week will apply to workers at the Canfor sawmill in Houston and Vanderhoof.

Announced by forests minister Doug Donaldson in Prince George Sept. 16, $40 million of the package is to provide a bridge to retirement for older workers, $15 million for short term projects such as getting rid of trees which pose as fire hazards near communities and $12 million for skills retraining.

There’s a further $2 million for an office to track workers as they take on other employment and money for communities to help cope with the effects of losing major employers.

The retirement bridge portion is to be cost-shared between the province and forest companies but it’s unknown as to whether Canfor will participate.

Canfor officials referred questions to the province while a provincial official said more details will be known soon.

“Government has committed this funding to support Interior mill workers in various communities,” said Dawn Makarowski from the forests ministry.

“The details of how the programs will be implemented will be available in the coming weeks. Our goal is to get these supports where they are needed the most,” she said.

“We’re still waiting for details from the government about how industry can participate in the program,” said Canfor official Michelle Ward.

The package comes as Canfor workers here and at the company’s mill in Houston, are now idled one day a week, as of this month, for the foreseeable future.

Canfor, as with other forest companies in the province, began either a series of temporary shutdowns beginning late last year or announced permanent closures of sawmills and other processing facilities.

The moves follow what companies say are continuing log shortages, high costs of logging, low market prices and the continuing impact of tariffs for lumber being exported to the United States.

John Rustad, the BC Liberal MLA for the Nechako Lakes riding, which takes in Houston and east to Vanderhoof and Fort St. James, was skeptical of some portions of the aid package.

“Look. Workers want to work. But this package does nothing to address the competitiveness of the industry which is losing money,” said Rustad.

He acknowledged there is money for retraining, but noted it is simply being shuffled in from other government programs.

“What happens when these mills open up again? The workers will be gone. How will the industry find workers if they have moved away in the meantime,” Rustad added.

He noted that there is value in the $15 million for short term programs such as ridding trees and other fuels near communities yet said that was something the BC Liberal caucus proposed back in the spring.

As for the bridge money for older workers nearing retirement, Rustad said it was unclear if the $40 million was all from the province or whether it also included money from the companies.

“Is it $20 million and $20 million? We just don’t know,” he said. “And do the companies have the money? They’re losing millions of dollars a month. That’s the reality.”

And while Donaldson called on the federal government to assist, Rustad said that’s highly unlikely given federal government operations are in a holding pattern because of the Oct. 21 federal election.

“Even if the current government is returned, nothing will happen until at least the new year,” said Rustad.

“The NDP has had all summer to do something and they did nothing. And now they do this,” he said of the aid package. “What were they doing all summer?”

Aside from aid intended for workers, the provincial package provides for an immediate $100,000 for municipalities affected by permanent mill closures and $75,000 for those undergoing indefinite closures.

Four communities are eligible for the permanent closure fund: Quesnel, Chasm, Vavenby where Canfor shut a mill down this spring and Fort St. James where Conifex, after an indefinite shutdown, announced this spring a permanent closure of its mill there. It subsequently said it was selling the mill and its accompany forest licence to Hampton, an Oregon-based company which has two mills in Burns Lake.

Hampton says it is working on a two-year plan to build a new mill in Fort St. James.

In the meantime, Canfor did confirm last week it has submitted its application for a workshare program which would see workers at both its Houston and Plateau mills be eligible for employment insurance benefits for the one day a week the mills are closed.

That application was submitted in conjunction with the United Steelworkers union which represents workers at the two mills.

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