Former Harbor Paper employees to receive more benefits

Former Harbor Paper employees will soon get a fresh batch of unemployment benefits, with the workers now eligible for federal Trade Act benefits.

The program is designed to help unemployed workers complete job retraining programs or relocate to find new jobs, said Bill Messenger of the Washington State Labor Council. He also called the program the “Cadillac of unemployment benefits.”

“It’s one of the best things that can happen to you if you’re unlucky enough to lose your job,” Messenger said. “We try really hard to get Trade Act benefits for people because the state system is so stretched.”

Mike Michener, an administrator for WorkSource Grays Harbor, said his office is already working hard to track down Harbor Paper employees to find out who is eligible for the program. Not everyone will be able to sign up — eligibility depends on how long people have been using unemployment benefits, among other factors.

Michener said he’s not sure how many of the employees will qualify for Trade Act benefits.

Harbor Paper employees will receive letters in the mail in the next two weeks, and WorkSource will host an informational meeting, Michener said. The unemployed workers will sign up for classes as early as winter quarter, and no later than spring quarter.

“It’s a very complicated program, but it’s a very good program,” Michener said. “So we need to get started.”

If the mill re-opens while the employees are doing their job retraining, they aren’t obligated to go back to work, Messenger said. As long as they’ve already signed up for the program, they can keep taking classes.

Messenger said he was surprised at how long it took for Harbor Paper employees to become eligible for the Trade Act. Company owners announced Feb. 25 that they were temporarily closing the mill for a management restructure, but nearly seven months later, Harbor Paper is still closed.

Harbor Paper officials haven’t yet said if or when the mill will resume operations. Lisa Tener, a spokesman for Elliott Rust Holdings, the company that owns Harbor Paper, said on Sept. 13 the company was still working on a solution.

The petition to acquire Trade Act benefits was filed in early June and took about three months to process. Messenger said this is unusual — the process is usually completed in about 40 days.

“It doesn’t usually take three months, especially when everyone agrees and everyone is rowing in the same direction,” Messenger.

Companies play a significant role in determining whether employees are eligible for the Trade Act, as only employees who have lost their jobs due to foreign competition can receive the benefits, Messenger said. In this case, Harbor Paper’s closure was partially due to competition with China — but it’s hard to prove that without company cooperation. “A lot of the recyclable paper is bought by China, and a lot of the logs,” Messenger said. “It’s harder to compete with that market.”