Benefits more than IP contract

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 13, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Workers being laid off from International Paper’s Natchez mill will receive benefits that exceed those specified in the unions’ contract with the company, union officials said Tuesday.

IP announced Jan. 23 that it would close its 52-year-old Natchez mill by the middle of the year, leaving 640 people out of work, due to a poor market for the chemical cellulose it produces.

Union officials have been told that the plant &045; barring purchase by another company &045; could close in June, with the first wave of layoffs happening as soon as April 6 and affecting as many as 124 people, said union official George Robinson.

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&uot;But the final (closing) date depends on customer orders,&uot; Robinson said. Seniority will be a factor in those layoffs, although senior people could choose to leave earlier for other job opportunities, he said.

The workers’ contract with the mill originally called for severance packages equal to 3 percent of lifetime earnings.

Although he would not give specifics, Monty Payne, an international representative of the Paper, Allied, Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union, said severance negotiated last week &uot;exceeds the labor agreement.&uot;

Severance will be based on a person’s last year earnings and the number of years a person has worked for the company, Payne said.

Natchez Alderman and Mayor Pro Tem David Massey said during Tuesday’s aldermen meeting that he was told by a union officials following talks last week that a 30-year mill worker would receive about $50,000 &045; of which 42 percent would go to taxes.

&uot;But they could lose that if someone else buys the mill before it closes,&uot; Massey said, adding that local officials should lobby for tax breaks on such severance payments.

PACE, the largest of the mill’s four unions, also pushed for additional insurance benefits and employee assistance coverage, or counseling.

The company agreed to continue insurance for employees and their families for three months, although laid-off workers will still be eligible for COBRA benefits for 15 months after that, at their own costs, said mill union president George Robinson. The company would only agree to extend counseling programs for three months for laid-off workers, Payne said.

IP agreed to give laid-off employees preferential hiring at other IP mills as positions are available, &uot;although (those mills) are having layoffs and hiring freezes themselves,&uot; Payne said.

&uot;There will be a limited number of skilled positions. As far as unskilled positions go, Š I don’t know.&uot;

Information on the terms of the negotiated agreement has been distributed throughout the plant. Some meetings have been held to give workers a chance to ask questions, and those meetings will continue in the next few days, Robinson said.

Payne did not have any figures Tuesday on how many mill employees would be eligible for retirement.

&uot;Some are, some aren’t,&uot; Payne said. &uot;And there are people who are vested but don’t meet the age for retirement. Unless they wait until age 65 (to take out the money), they’ll lose it.&uot;

Payne did say that pension renegotiations for the entire company will be held later this month &045; and that those talks were scheduled before the Natchez announcement.

Information on any retirement changes will be disseminated to Natchez mill employees as soon as possible after those talks, Payne said.

Meanwhile, he added, &uot;we’re hoping that a buyer will come up out of the woodwork and keep people working.&uot;

Unions at the mill include three locals of PACE, two of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and one each of the International Association of Machinists and the International Union of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry.