Tester joins Columbia Falls in search for solutions for Weyerhaeuser workers

Daily Interlake

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, met with Columbia Falls representatives Friday morning for a roundtable discussion on what local and federal efforts could do to fill in the community’s gaps.

The meeting came roughly a month after Weyerhaeuser Company announced it will permanently close its lumber and plywood mills in Columbia Falls by early September — meaning roughly 240 jobs will disappear from the town.

The discussion revolved around how to piece together resources to create lasting jobs, and how the soon-to-be empty mills could be used in the future.

Coming out of the meeting, Tester said he had a few key question for Weyerhaeuser officials the next time they talk.

“We got to find out what the hell Weyerhaeuser’s doing, what the plans are for the site,” Tester said. “And quite frankly … how to get the workers trained without starving them to death.”

The company has stated at least 140 jobs will be available for workers at its other Montana sites in Kalispell and Evergreen — reducing the number of people without a job to 100. Weyerhaeuser also plans to close its main office in Columbia Falls by the end of the year, removing another 100 jobs from the town.

Tester met with representatives from the Job Service, Flathead Valley Community College, the Columbia Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, Montana West Economic Development and the Small Business Administration.

“I don’t need to tell you that between [past layoffs] and Weyerhaeuser, you guys have seen your share of tough luck,” Tester said. “But we’re not here to hang anybody out, we’re here to talk about solutions.”

While Tester’s office said Weyerhaeuser was aware of the meeting, no representatives from the company attended. Marnee Banks, Tester’s communications director, said the roundtable focused on the community’s response — not Weyerhaeuser’s.

“The goal of the roundtable was to bring community leaders together to come up with solutions to find work for the laid-off workers who … need jobs at other companies,” Banks wrote in an email.

Laura Gardner, the Flathead Job Service manager, said initial efforts to support laid-off workers should revolve around short-term training.

She said because the mill’s closure is not categorized as trade-related, federal funding will most likely be limited to the roughly $850,000 Montana was allocated for statewide layoffs through the Workers Innovation Opportunities Act.

“So basically, they have their severance — which can be from four weeks to six months — and they can get their six months of unemployment, and that’s all the income they have to get through any kind of training,” Gardner said.

Chamber of Commerce president Mark Johnson, said he believes mill workers who find themselves jobless in the fall have the ability to prepare for new work — he’s just worried work won’t be available.

“We don’t lack resources; we don’t lack training,” he said. “We need jobs. And we can retrain them all we want, but what are they going to do at the end of the day?”

Casey Malmquist, the president of Malmquist Construction responded, “Well, we got jobs; we just need a place to build a building.”

Mayor Don Barnhart said he believes there’s an opportunity to redevelop the roughly 90 acres of Weyerhaeuser’s Columbia Falls property that will sit empty. He said unlike most Columbia Falls property, the location has a well-established infrastructure.

But that possibility depends on what Weyerhaeuser intends to do with the property, Barnhart said.

“It should be redeveloped sooner rather than later to try to attract somebody in there,” Barnhart said. “But the only thing we’ve heard at this point is [Weyerhaeuser plans] to tear it down and make it all go away.”

Gardner said the company is currently going through the interview process with its 240 mill workers to see who will have a job at its other plants.

“Until we know who are the ones who are left, it’s hard for us to work with them as far as retraining,” she said.

She said it was possible the mill could qualify for a national emergency grant, and if so, workers would be given time to train for a new job. However, she said she wasn’t sure if Weyerhaeuser would apply for the grant or if it would fall to the Job Service. She estimated either way, it would take at least two months to secure.

She said assuming the emergency grant doesn’t come through, the Job Service has worked closely with the college to be prepared to get jobless workers in classes in time for FVCC’s first day of class on August 25.

“If these 100 workers want to go back to training, we want to be able to accommodate them,” she said. “If they wait until January, they’re unemployment will be gone.”