Employment officials advise Harbor Paper workers to find new jobs

It’s been months since the owners of Harbor Paper in Hoquiam have had anything substantive to say publicly about the fate of their mothballed mill, and local unemployment officials are advising laid off employees to treat no news as bad news and look for new jobs.

WorkSource Grays Harbor hosted a series of “rapid response” meetings for the unemployed mill workers Tuesday to inform them of their unemployment benefit rights. It’s been nearly five months since the mill was shut down, and the company has been silent regarding future plans. WorkSource Manager Ron Schmidt said workers need to start operating under the assumption that Harbor Paper isn’t going to re-open.

“There’s been no communication from the mill, so we are going on the premise that the mill is closed,” Schmidt said. “We can’t wait any longer with what we do.”

About 50 former millworkers packed into the SouthShore Mall community room for the 10 a.m. meeting — so many that more tables and chairs had to be brought out to accommodate everyone. Additional employees attended a 3 p.m. meeting.

Representatives from the Washington State Labor Council, the state Employment Security Department and Grays Harbor College also attended, giving the workers an overview of their unemployment insurance, education options and job re-training rights.

Dan Webster of the the state Employment Security Department explained that many Harbor Paper employees are already receiving some benefits in the form of unemployment insurance — which is fully funded by their employer. While operational, companies are required to pay into the unemployment insurance fund, which is then used to help workers who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.

Unemployed workers are eligible for these benefits for one year, and the amount of money they receive is based on the amount of money they earned in a year of employment. Between June of 2012 and July of this year, unemployed workers could collect between $143 and $604 each week. But to be eligible for benefits, workers must continue to search for jobs and work with an unemployment office, such as WorkSource.

Schmidt said that Harbor Paper employees should also take advantage of various job training programs.

He said he knows first-hand that these programs work — he was laid off from the pulp and paper complex in 1992.

“There is certainly life after layoff, and these programs work,” Schmidt said. “I can attest to that.”

The state recently received $2.7 million in additional funding from the federal government, some of which will be given to Grays Harbor WorkSource to use for job training for long-term unemployed workers. Schmidt said this is the most money WorkSource has seen since the recession began.

“It’s been a long, long time,” Schmidt said. “It’s not like the ’90s when money was flowing like water off the back of a duck. We were flush with funding in the 1990s, and we haven’t been lately.”

Harbor Paper employees could also qualify for Trade Act benefits from the federal government. Caitlyn Jekel of the Washington State Labor Council said her organization filed a Trade Act petition with the federal government, but she’s not sure if or when the claim will go through, given that Harbor Paper officials must be involved in the process.

“Unfortunately, a lot of us don’t know where they are with paperwork,” Jekel said. “We’ve seen these take multiple months before, but we’ve also seen them come back in four weeks.”

While Trade Act benefits could be very helpful to the workers, Schmidt advised the meeting attendees not to wait around for the benefits — and they certainly shouldn’t wait to get their jobs back.

“You’ve really got to get moving on this,” Schmidt said.