In September, West Fraser’s Chasm sawmill, located between the communities of 70 Mile House and Clinton, will permanently close and the site will be dismantled. As the end draws near, West Fraser’s management team is still navigating the process of relocating their employees to other locations within B.C. and beyond.
Brian Balkwill is West Fraser’s Vice-President of Canadian Wood Products and is in charge of “looking after” all of the company’s Canadian mills. West Fraser remains one of the largest lumber producers and suppliers in North America.
On July 30, Balkwill told the Free Press that the Chasm location has about a week left of logs to process and relocation offers will be presented to employees in the next seven to ten days.
“Right now we have to consume the logs,” he explained. “Then we need to plane all that lumber into finished product. It’ll be sometime in September when we wrap everything up, but we don’t have an exact date yet.”
September 8 is the day that West Fraser has committed employment to their workers, but Balkwill said the Chasm location may wrap up on that day or a few days beyond.
“The guys and girls are producing about what we were prior to the announcement, so we’re pretty confident that we’re going to be close to that [date].”
West Fraser’s priority, according to Balkwill, is to get the logs they do have through the mill and ensure that all employees are in a good spot.
“That’s our first objective, the site will be later on once the mill wraps up here, which will be September.”
Balkwill went on to explain the approach that the company has taken to help its employees in the wake of June’s permanent closure announcement. Everyone has been offered severance, he said, whether they are staff or paid hourly.
“Our objective is to have as many of those people, of our employees, to continue to work for us,” he explained. “So what we’ve said is we’re willing to relocate people within our company to vacancies, and we have enough vacancies within our company to be able to take everybody if we wanted to, so that’s been the offer. We’re trying to retain everybody that’s willing to transfer to another division.”
West Fraser has conducted one-on-one interviews with every one of its employees, said Balkwill.
“[We’ve] asked them what their sort of vision is. Are they willing to move to [different] locations, and if so what are they? Then we’ve gone and said ‘Okay, well what vacancies do we have in these locations’? Then we’ve had the individual management teams from our 25 divisions in Canada—including the pulp mills— we’ve had those locations come down and do interviews with employees that said they are interested in moving to a particular division.”
Balkwill explained that individuals may want to relocate to Williams Lake, for example, but there may be 20 people who want to do that and the company could have room for just five workers.
“We’re right in the middle of it,” he said. “Where we are trying to see who is going to fit where.”
An employee’s first choice for relocation may not always be possible, but there are vacancies elsewhere.
“We may not have room for you there but we have room for you in Chetwynd or somewhere in Alberta. It’s quite a process to be able to do that because people’s preferences may not match with where we have openings necessarily. Several people would say, ‘I’d like to work at 100 Mile’, well we laid a shift off in 100 Mile so there are no vacancies there for the Chasm people.”
“Our commitment has been that we will relocate anybody that’s willing to relocate,” he added. “Now the challenge is matching their preferences to what we have for vacancies.”
West Fraser’s Chasm location has had a large percentage of employees willing to relocate, said Balkwill, and a few workers who are nearing retirement have chosen to take their severance and stay in their current community. “That’s been really good for us and for them,” he said.
Other employees have decided to take their “chances” on seeking employment elsewhere, though.
“There’s sort of been three groups. Everybody’s had a severance package presented to them, but we haven’t made offers to people yet to go to whatever division. We’ve interviewed them all, the other divisions have come in and interviewed them, and now we’re just in the middle of settling on who we are going to offer to what division. That’s where we’re at in the process.”
Following shift reductions at West Fraser’s 100 Mile House location, Balkwill confirmed that it is unlikely for Chasm mill-workers to relocate within the South Cariboo.
“There may be some rare exceptions there, but obviously, there are people in 100 Mile that we would bring back if we have vacancies first. In their operation, they have a right to recall. If a job came open, then they could come back into the mill.”
“When it comes to a shift reduction, that’s essentially how it works,” he explained. “They have the right to recall back to their job if one becomes available. Now in this permanent closure example, obviously there’s no right to recall and if an opening came in another division, they can’t say ‘I’m going there’. It’s more, ‘What is your preference?’ and our commitment is, if you’re interested in moving, we will find a place for you.”
The challenge is going to be whether their preference matches with what West Fraser has for openings. Balkwill said that the company definitely has enough openings to handle everybody, but it’s going to be difficult for people to pick up their families and move away to some location that may not work for them. “That’s the big challenge,” he admitted.
West Fraser’s Chasm location implemented a safe production bonus following its closure announcement. That bonus carries the intention of continuing to operate the mill at the levels it was previously operating within, prior to the announcement.
“We’re willing to give the employees an additional top-up in their wages if we operate safely, where we’re not hurting people, and we operate at production levels that we traditionally have. The intent is to wrap up the mill as quickly and as safely as possible.”
Balkwill clarified that the bonus is entirely separate from the severance packages offered to Chasm workers: “That’s a severance that we’ve offered all our employees. Something that we implement on top of that was [the] safe production bonus.”
In September, the Chasm sawmill will be dismantled entirely.
“It’s no longer going to be a sawmill,” Balkwill said. “That property that our mill is located on is actually leased land from the government, so we don’t own the property. Because we shut the mill down due to lack of long term fibre supply, it doesn’t make sense to try to sell it to another forest company or something like that, because that’s the reason. If we couldn’t operate, no one else will be able to, so we’re dismantling the sawmill and we’ll be working with the government on the reclamation.”
In the meantime, West Fraser remains concerned about the closure’s impact on its employees and is determined to ease the transition to the best of the company’s ability.
“We’re very worried about the impact we have on Clinton and 100 Mile. Our goal all along has been, what are we going to do to make sure our employees land on their feet, wherever that may be.”