Burns Lake mill rebuild anticipated

Many former employees face the end of EI benefits before Christmas.

According the Steve Zika, Chief Executive Officer of Hampton Affiliates, the company is proceeding with plans for the rebuild of the Babine Forest Products mill as if the mill is going to be rebuilt, even though the final decision of the board will not be made until a Dec. 3 board meeting.

“Besides clearing off the old mill, we have been doing some excavation, laying some fire pipe, restoring power and beginning some limited rebar, concrete and foundation work on a small part of the sawmill site,” he said on Nov. 7.  “We are proceeding like the mill will be rebuilt, but the final decision will still be made on Dec. 3.”

This is positive news for former mill employees and their families. “The local union has been having regular meetings with the company [Hampton] and have ensured all our members retain their seniority rights in anticipation of a positive announcement in December,” said Boota Johal, the United Steelworkers local 1-424 business agent for Burns Lake.

But even with a positive outcome of that meeting, there will remain a large number of unemployed mill workers who shortly face the end of their unemployment benefits.  Even if the rebuild begins in early in 2013, it will be at least a year before the mill is operating an ready to hire back former employees.

“Our members who are still unemployed and with employment insurance running out are in a difficult situation,” Johal said.

Burns Lake Band (BLB) Chief Albert Gerow has been staying in touch with Hampton Affiliates to keep track of how things stand with former employees of the mill.

Of 233 hourly employees, 102 where First Nations.  According to Judy French, Employment Coordinator for the Burns Lake Band, three BLB members worked at the Babine mill and one has found other employment.

Gerow related the most current numbers that he had from Hampton regarding number of workers that remain unemployed as of Nov. 6, 2012.  Of the 174 former employees that were available for work (not all were available to work due to WCB and rehabilitation programs), 58 have found other work in labour positions, 26 have found other work in a trade and 13 of 15 formerly salaried employees have found other work.

That leaves 98 people, both First Nations and non First Nations, available for work.  Inversely, it means that up to 98 people face the running out of their unemployment insurance benefits.

“One of the things that we’ve been working towards,” said Gerow about how the community was going to deal with the end of unemployment benefits, “has been to engage as many employees as possible who want to do some upgrading with their education.  They will be able to go to CNC to do that.”

This idea is that this strategy will have a double benefit.  “The strategy group in town will work with Hampton to develop courses specific for employees to upgrade and be better prepared for the upgraded technology [in the new mill],” he said.  But the second benefit is that assistance will be available for those in retraining, even if their employment benefits have run out.

“Under Human Resources and Development Canada rules, if you’ve been on EI during the last three years, you can apply for training assistance which goes towards paying for tuition, books, registration and then a living allowance while they’re in training,” Gerow said.

“The living allowance is different than EI in that the allowance is based on an individual’s level of need, for example, whether or not they have dependents,” he said.

And the province continues to inject money into the situation.  On Nov. 23 the ministry of jobs and skills training announced a $2 million dollar Aboriginal Emergency Assistance fund to help students while they are enrolled in a program.

According to Lynn Synotte with the Lakes campus of the College of New Caledonia (CNC), CNC as a whole has already received over $700,000 from the fund.

The Burns Lake CNC has a strong representation of First Nations students in many programs Synotte said.

“The Lakes campus can access this fund on an as-needed basis and we have,” she said.  “The money has been used to assist our students with food, transportation and housing expenses which helped them stay in school.”