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Paper plant workers face furloughs

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By Chris Sardelli

An area paper plant is feeling the effects of a slow economy, and has made plans to furlough more than 100 employees.

AbitibiBowater, located just across the Lancaster County line in Catawba, will shut down one of its three paper machines for one month in an effort to save money.

The No. 1 machine, which creates paper from pulp, is operated by 123 people, which includes 101 production employees and 22 maintenance workers. Those people will be temporarily out of work from March 1 through March 31. Employees will be back to work starting April 1.

Barry Baker, human resources manager for the Catawba operation, said demand for paper has dropped to a point where the plant needed to cut production. By shutting down the one machine for one month, the plant will cut production on more than 14,000 tons of paper.

Baker said AbitibiBowater chose the No. 1 machine because it’s older, slower and not as wide, all of which he said makes it more expensive to produce paper.

“This was no reflection on the employees of the paper machine. In fact, they set the production record last year,” Baker said. “They’re a great group.”

Baker said employees can choose whether to use paid time off, such as vacation time or floating holidays, during the temporary layoff, but it is not required. The company will be helping the affected employees apply for unemployment benefits.

“The lines at the unemployment office are pretty bad and we want to help make it as easy as possible for them to apply for benefits,” he said.

This is not the first cost-cutting measure AbitibiBowater has made in recent months. The company shut down the whole Catawba operation for nine days in December, from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1. Most recently, the operation shut down during the first week of February.

“We’ve all been working together to conserve cash and reduce spending,” he said.

The company decided it would not have been the right economic decision to shut the whole plant down again, especially since there is still a high demand for pulp, Baker said.

AbitibiBowater was created when Bowater Inc. merged with Canadian company Abitibi Consolidated in October 2007.

Based in Montreal, the company is the largest producer of newsprint in the world, according to its Web site.  

The Catawba operation makes coated paper for magazines and books and market pulp for paper towels, tissue and other products.

Almost 1,000 people, including many from Lancaster County, work at the Catawba plant.

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli  at csardelli@thelancasternews.com or at (803) 416-8416