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9:42 am
Thu December 15, 2011

Jobless in Idaho: Laid off mill worker uncertain of his future

When the Clearwater Paper sawmill announced it was selling its Lewiston mill to the Idaho Forest Group back in October, the fate of 250 mill jobs was unclear. For many, it still is, even as the mill gets ready to re-open next week. For one of those laid-off workers, the upcoming holidays are just a reminder of that uncertainty.

This year, December 25th has taken on a new meaning for Allen Brown. It’s the day he’ll receive his final severance-pay-check from the former Clearwater Paper sawmill in Lewiston. “So, Merry Christmas," Brown says. "I’ll be trying to live on unemployment and raise three kids and myself.”

Brown is one of the mill-workers who got laid off earlier this year when Spokane-based Clearwater Paper sold its Lewiston mill to the Idaho Forest Group. Brown was a saw-filer. "I helped to sharpen and take care of the large band saws they cut the wood with," he says. "It was shift work, couple weeks of days, couple weeks of nights. It was a physically demanding job, but kind of fun.” And Brown says the pay was good. He was making about $20 an hour, plus benefits.

He’s originally from Lewiston, but after working in Seattle for more than a decade, he decided to move his family back home. Brown took the mill job three and a half years ago because he thought it was stable. Now, it’s unclear if he’ll get hired back at the mill, under its new owners, but he’s not counting on it.

So far, the Idaho Forest Group has hired 106 people to re-start the mill next week. The company had more than 500 applications for those jobs. “Everyone is sort of sitting by the phone hoping they get rehired," Brown says. "But, I’m not banking on that. I’ve been networking and trying to find my own job. I’ve got to create my own destiny and find a job on my own.”

Brown thinks he's in a better spot than many of his former mill colleagues, because he has an associate's degree in electronics. He's also certified to be a roadside flagger. And now he’s considering additional certifications for welding and semi-truck driving. But at 44 years old, he’s facing competition from people half his age.

“I’ve got my education and hoped I could ride that out until I retired," says Brown. "But now I’m trying to grab up anything else, and trying to make myself look better than the next guy that’s applying for the same job, or the next 100 guys that I’m up against. It’s tough. It’s really tough right now.”

Brown is trying to make his severance pay from the mill last for the next couple of months. And he gets $300 a week in unemployment benefits. Those expire in April. He’s raising three teenage daughters on his own, and doesn’t receive regular child support payments. Brown says he's trying to cutback and just do the minimal. "Of course everybody has to have their cell phone and I’m looking at trying to get that contract eliminated, and of course that doesn’t go over too well with teenage kids,” he says.

Still, Brown says there is an upside to being out of work. "Coming off this shift work where they’d hardly ever see me, (I was) working 12 hour days, I’m now able to cook breakfast for them and was able to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for my mom and grandma and immediate family."

Brown’s applied for a handful of jobs in the area, with Schweitzer Engineering and a local boat manufacturer. And he’s doing a lot of networking with old co-workers and friends around town. But he says many potential employers are all holding out until after the holidays to make any hiring decisions.

"Every day I go out and look for a job, come back in and look at my answering machine, see if it’s flashing, see if I’ve gotten a call or anything– but as of yet, I haven’t," Brown says.

He plans to hit the job search even harder after the first of the year. Then, there is always the chance he'll get called back to the mill.