Industry — SP Fiber Technologies officials hope to start up new packing material machine in June, but unsure how many employees will be hired back at Newberg plant

It came about quickly. On Jan. 13, it was announced a newsprint machine at SP Fiber Technologies would be converted to produce packing material. On Jan. 15, the machine was shut down and about 70 employees were laid off at the Wynooski Street mill. The mill employed 230 people prior to layoffs.

“Everybody knows about declining newsprint conditions and knows about slow operations in the winter. It’s a disappointment, but for those who have been through this before they won’t be surprised and for those who haven’t been through this before, it’s going to be tough,” said Scott Wagener, SP general manager. “It’s very difficult to do.”by: GARY ALLEN - Market decline - The SP Fiber Technologies mill at 1301 Wynooski Road closed one of two newsprint machines Jan. 15 in order to convert it for packing material production after seeing a drop in the market. The closure means 70 employees were laid off.

The idea that PM5 — one of two newsprint machines in Newberg — would be converted has been discussed since SP Fiber Technologies took over SP Newsprint in 2012, Wagener said. But recent conditions overseas sparked the quick decision and execution of the project.

“Unfortunately, early this year the market has taken a rapid turn for the worse,” he said. “Because the market changed so quickly, it’s driving the sense of urgency.”

In 2009 and 2010, SP Newsprint closed a number of times when orders were slow, but with the market improving the plant hasn’t had to close for the past several years. Things were going well.

“We filled (the slow months) with export orders,” Wagener said.

That is until things rapidly declined in December and January.

“It was a big surprise to everybody,” said Ron Leggett, Association of Western Pulp & Paper Workers Local 60 president. “Fifty-eight union employees are being displaced and 12 salaried positions.”

Leggett said union employees are covered under the Trade Act for re-training and education if they choose. Employees are also eligible for unemployment and he said the union has a one-time hardship fund as well.

He said company officials hope to have the conversion completed to re-open in the second quarter of the year.

“It will take every bit of the six months,” he said.

When the converted machine is up and running sometime in June, Wagener said those who have been laid off might be able to return to work.

“At this point we are not sure how many people are needed (for the new machine),” he said. “Those we do need will be called in from those laid off from the mill.”

Leggett said he isn’t sure if the conversion will actually happen. He said, as far as he knows, SP still needs funding to convert the machine.

“It remains to be seen,” he said. “But I hope it does.”

Wagener added that the conversion should help business in the future because the packing material market has been increasing in general over time.

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