Mill workers facing layoffs as shifts reduced at Aspen Planers

At least 50 employees will be laid off at the Aspen Planers sawmill in Merritt, after the company announced plans to move to a single shift per day schedule.

“Due to the ongoing lack of access to logs, increased log costs and weakening lumber markets, Aspen Planers will curtail production and reduce operations to one shift per day starting Monday, June 3,” said Aspen Planers’ executive vice president, Bruce Rose in a news release.

The curtailment is aimed at restoring a regular schedule at the mill, which has been plagued by week-long shutdowns since last November, as the forestry companies across the Interior struggle with the high cost and low supply of logs in B.C.

The company plans “to keep it to one shift, and ongoing at this point in time,” said Brian Menzies, director of communications with Aspen Planers.

“As the major employer in this area, we have a responsibility to our employees, our community, and the hundreds more that depend upon Aspen Planers for their economic livelihood here in Merritt and other areas including Savona and Lillooet,” said Rose. “We are a family-owned business that has operated for more than 70 years, and we will continue to seek economic opportunities that are sustainable for our company and the communities that depend upon our commerce.”

Though manufacturing plants owned by Aspen Planers in Savona and Lillooet are connected to the Merritt mill, the company doesn’t expect to layoff any workers at those operations right now, said Menzies.

About a quarter of the 200 Aspen Planers employees in Merritt will be without work as of the start of June, said Menzies.

Should the economic winds change, and the company is able to restore a second shift at the Merritt mill, union rules would ensure employees affected by the layoffs would have first crack at their jobs, explained Marty Gibbons, president of the Local 1-417 of the United Steelworkers Union which represents workers at the Aspen Planers mill.

But Menzies said the long-term outlook for the mill returning to two shifts remained unclear.

“Obviously we can’t make that determination at this point in time,” he said. “But we hope to [return to two shifts], yes.”

For some of the workers who have been affected by the week-long shutdowns, there is a silver lining to the announcement of the shift curtailment, said Gibbons.

“They have been laid off every other week,” he said. “All employees have been surviving off of half paycheques basically, so a lot have moved on. This may actually provide some consistent employment to the ones that remain.”

Gibbons said the current state of forestry in B.C. can be traced back to a lack of planning and foresight on the part of previous provincial governments. A lack of timber supply has driven up the price of logs, he said, while access issues specific to the Nicola Valley have compounded issues.

“At this point in time, we are basically in a time where — thanks to previous mismanagement of government — we have a timber crisis in the Nicola Valley,” said Gibbons. “With the potential for the last forestry operation in Merritt to disappear.”

“Long term we need to secure timber for this community, in this community. And that’s the challenge that I’ll put out there for any politician who wants to mouth off on this topic — get some fibre into our mills and keep forestry in Merritt.”