'It's a difficult day:' Tolko's Merritt mill shuts its doors - InfoNews

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'It's a difficult day:' Tolko's Merritt mill shuts its doors

FILE PHOTO: The Merritt Tolko mill.
Image Credit: Contributed by Tolko Industries
December 16, 2016 - 4:44 PM

MERRITT - The Tolko mill in Merritt has officially shut its doors, just nine days before Christmas, and a company official says it hasn't been easy on anyone.

Troy Connolly, senior general manager of lumber, says despite claims by the union, the company is working hard to help employees transition.

"We’ve had multiple conversations with the union," Connolly says. "From my perspective pieces of those conversations are coming out, not all of the conversation."

United Steelworkers local 1-417 President Marty Gibbons said in an interview yesterday, Dec. 15, that the company should have gone beyond its legal obligations to help workers transition after layoffs.

Connolly says he feels the company has helped as much as they can in aiding the more than 200 employees at the Merritt mill.

"Our main focus has been the safety of our employees and also in helping in the transition process," Connolly says. "We scheduled an additional job fair in January for displaced employees to look at potential opportunities at our other operations in the new year."

Tolko Industries has three other lumber mills in southern B.C. and Connolly says he expects 20 to 30 jobs to be opening in those locations by March or April.

"Our primary goal at the job fair is to make sure people are aware of what those opportunities are," he says. 

Connolly says severance pay was offered to all of the employees at the Merritt mill, but did not comment on how many employees took the packages. He says approximately 30 per cent of those employees have the opportunity to take an unreduced pension.

"I think our employees and our staff employees in particular have done an exceptional job at trying to understand, trying to work with employees in this very difficult situation and tried to work with them on what their opportunities and options are," he says. "We do have a contract, we’re meeting our obligations in that contract. In terms of the whole process, I'm very pleased with the way my staff in the Merritt facility handled this process."

Gibbons said in yesterday's interview that the company intentionally set a date of Dec. 16 to shut down production to avoid paying stat holidays over the Christmas season. Connolly refutes that claim.

"I can say unequivocally that’s not true," he says. "I actually hadn’t even thought about that until I read in your article that was occurring. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. The decision to make the announcement was purely driven by the fact that we don’t have enough logs to run all of our facilities."

Connolly says he wasn't at the mill for its final day of production today, but was there earlier this week. He says staff is, understandably, upset.

"People are obviously upset, they’re sad, it’s a difficult day," he says. "I think that the way it was handled by our employees is just, there’s no other way to put it, with a high degree of professionalism. I can’t say or speculate how people were feeling, but the feedback I’m getting is people are sad, upset, but at the same time wishing each other the best."

Connolly says woodland staff will still be working out of the Merritt facility and the company has no plans at this time on what to do with the site.

"There’s no plans for the facility at this point in time," he says. "We curtailed the mill in such a way that leaves our options open if we wanted to look at potential sale, if we wanted to look at reallocating some of the equipment. We don’t have any imminent plans."

The closure of the Merritt facility will have no chain reaction on the other mills in B.C., Connolly says.

"When we made the decision to close the Merritt facility, it was done so that we had fibre supply for the remaining assets," he says. "We just didn’t have enough wood for all mills unfortunately. I mean, that’s what it comes down to."

To contact a reporter for this story, email Ashley Legassic or call 250-319-7494 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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