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Some furloughed workers return to jobs at paper mill

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By Chris Sardelli

CATAWBA - Some furloughed employees have returned to work earlier than expected at the AbitibiBowater paper plant in Catawba.

The plant, located just across the Lancaster County line, had planned to extend furloughs for 123 of its employees through the end of April, but decided to bring back a small group this week.

Barry Baker, human resources manager for the Catawba operation, said 24 production employees and seven maintenance workers have returned to work on the plant’s No. 1 machine.

“We’re glad we’re able to do this, but we’re still very concerned about the people on lay-offs,” Baker said. “A lot of people from this department are not able to come back at this time, and we’re not able to celebrate until we bring our people back for their full schedules.”

The affected workers, which includes 101 production employees and 22 maintenance workers, operated the No. 1 machine, which creates paper from pulp. This is one of three paper machines at the plant. Baker said the shut-down of that machine created an excess surplus of pulp.

But with the decision to temporarily stop making coated paper on that machine, the company instead decided to use part of the machine to make pulp sheets. As a result, the plant was able to bring back some of its furloughed employees to operate the machine.

Returning employees will work four days a week until the entire staff returns from the temporary lay-offs.

The furloughs, which began on March 1, were originally planned for just one month, but extended through the end of April in an effort to save money.

“We still hope the orders will pick up for coated paper. This is not a change in strategy, just an interim measure,” he said. “Typically, things tend to pick up in the spring, so we’re hopeful.”

Baker cites the poor economy, a surplus in paper supplies and a reduction in the amount of advertisers placing ads in newspapers for the drop in orders of paper. As customers’ inventories of paper begin to dwindle, he expects business to grow.

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

Employees have the option of using paid time off, such as vacation time or floating holidays, during the temporary layoff, but it is not required. The company will continue helping the affected employees apply for unemployment benefits.

The company has instituted other cost-cutting measures in recent months as well. In December, the company shut down the whole Catawba operation for nine days, from Dec. 24 through Jan. 1. Most recently, the operation shut down during the first week of February.

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

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