‘A lot of them are just in limbo’: laid-off Kelowna mill workers face uncertain future

Tolko Industries announced an indefinite closure in mid-September putting more than 120 workers out of a job.

That’s on top of the 90 employees laid off two months prior in a shift reduction.

READ MORE: Tolko Industries announces lumber mill in Kelowna will be closed indefinitely

Tolko’s mill in Kelowna is one of numerous operations throughout B.C. hard hit by the forestry industry’s recent struggles.

READ MORE: Tolko Industries announces more downtime for its Okanagan plants

“The future doesn’t look good,” said Pat McGregor, president for the United Steelworkers Union, Local 1-423.

“Pretty much they’re done until spring and they can re-assess in the springtime, and see if there’s been any relief to costs.”

McGregor said the laid-off workers have been left in a difficult situation.

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“A lot of them are just in limbo, wondering what is going on as it’s an indefinite closure,” McGregor said.

“There’s nothing permanent and they can’t really look for a job in another town because at a moment’s notice, or 72 hours’ notice, they have to be ready to come back here.

“So although they can find other work, if they do find that work and the mill decides to start up again, they need to make a tough decision, so right now it’s just the fear of not knowing.”

The tough times have been blamed on an array of market and operating challenges during a time when the industry is experiencing a dwindling timber supply.

“We’ve had difficult, challenging conditions with beetle infestation, particularly in the Interior of the province,” said Susan Yurkovich, president and CEO of the B.C. Council of Forest Industries.

“And then, of course, in 2017 and then in 2018, we had two years of devastating wildfires and that’s had a very significant impact on the fibre available to move through our mills.”

READ MORE: B.C. won’t slash stumpage fees to help struggling forestry sector

With less timber available, B.C.’s annual allowable cut is quickly declining.

In the Interior in 2007, it was at 70 million cubic metres. That decreased to 50 million in 2018 and is projected to be down to 40 million cubic metres by 2030.

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“The ministry sets the sustainable harvest level and that sustainable harvest level is coming down quite dramatically,” Yurkovich said.

“And so, of course, there’s less fibre available for mills and so we are looking to re-balance the capacity that we have in our mills with the sustainable harvest level.

“And that’s where we need to go because nobody wants to harvest at a level that’s not sustainable, so it’s a very difficult transition.”

Industry stakeholders are now brainstorming on ways to help soften the blow.

“As presidents of the Interior mills, steelworker mills, we are all getting together, getting a game plan to go lobby the government on some of the issues that we see would get these mills started again,” McGregor told Global News.



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