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Mill Layoffs In Prineville Are About More Than Jobs

Amanda Peacher/OPB

Last November,  the Woodgrain Millwork company shut down most of its operation in Prineville, northeast of Bend, Oregon.  Nearly 200 workers were laid off. The mill was one of the largest employers in Crook County.

Now, both the town and the laid-off workers are struggling to recover. For many mill employees, the layoffs meant not only the loss of a paycheck, but also a lost community. 

A small group of women, former employees, gather around Mary Sanislow’s kitchen table in Powell Butte, just outside of Prineville. 

Sanislow offers soda and her friend, Peggy Murphy, makes the group laugh with her response: “You know that’s not how we roll, Mary.”

These women used to work together. They saw each other every day at the Woodgrain Mill. But that changed when they lost their jobs.

Murphy says: “It’s like the worst break up I’ve ever had. You know it’s a divorce feeling like, sinking. It’s devastation.”

Murphy worked at Woodgrain for 20 years.Two months ago, she and her coworkers lost their jobs. “You wake up anxious at three o’clock in the morning you don’t know what you’re going to do,” she says. “What are you going to do? How are you going to feed your kids? It sucks.” 

Woodgrain managers announced the closure of most mill operations just before Thanksgiving, after a huge section of the mill’s roof collapsed under the weight of snow.

Willia Bucholz worked there 27 years. “When they laid us off, they told, you know today’s your last day, they gave me an hour’s notice and said, you no longer have insurance.”

The workers were given a $17 gift card to buy a Thanksgiving turkey.

Woodgrain officials declined a recorded an interview with OPB, but in an email, company vice-president Greg Easton said “company policy was followed” regarding the layoffs and lack of severance.

Two months later, some workers have found other jobs. A few transferred to Woodgrain facilities out of state. But in a town with fewer than 10,000 people, it’s a blow.

“Devastating,” says  Prineville’s city manager Steve Forrester. “A mainstay of our community was stopped all the sudden, in one day, in just a matter of minutes.”

Forrester hopes Woodgrain will find a way to reopen the entire mill.  The city is hoping to present Woodgrain with a package of incentives that might be available should Woodgrain decide to rebuild. But if not, other companies have expressed interest in the site.

“We know that there have been some on-site visits from what I would call third-party outside interests,” says Forrester. “We think that’s a very good sign.”

Forrester says those companies interested in the site are also forest products companies.

In his email to OPB, Woodgrain official Easton said that about 60 employees are still at the mill.

“Woodgrain intends to make a viable manufacturing plant out of the remaining operations,” Easton wrote. “We continue to manufacture MDF mouldings, wood pellets, and wood door frames.  We are no longer ripping, cutting, or finger jointing wood and we do not anticipate starting those operations in the near future.  We are continuing to work through insurance claims and the demolition process and until that is complete it is very difficult to understand the future possibilities.”  

Either way, it will take time to replace those jobs. According to the state, Crook County’s unemployment rate jumped to the highest in Oregon after the layoffs.

“Unemployment had come way down over the past few years and this was a real setback,” says Forrester.

After the layoffs, churches and community organizations helped organize food drives and holiday assistance programs for mill workers. 

“One of the things about Prineville is that we really do take care of our own,” says Betty Roppe, mayor of Prineville.   “When there’s a tragedy of any kind, this community does miracles.”

She says several local businesses took on Woodgrain workers after the layoffs.

For workers like Peggy Murphy, the job loss is bigger than a paycheck. “When you start there at 24 years old, you grew up with those people, got married had kids, got divorced (laughter), so yeah, it’s just different stages of your life right there in that building.”

During breaks from work at the mill, the machines would shut off and the women would take out out their ear plugs and cluster together around the one heater in the room. 

“We all got together at breaks,” says Bucholz. “Just whatever—what we did the night before or gossip or whatever.”

The women are still in touch almost every day. But Murphy says their conversations are different, “you can’t get together unless we call or text each other.

What are the women texting each other these days?

Murphy: “Do you have a job yet?”

Sanislow: “How is the job you have?”

Of their group of four, two of the women have found jobs. Mary Sanislow is working at Contact Lumber in Prineville as a cutter. It’s a job she did years ago.

“I mean, I’m grateful to Contact for giving me a job but it’s like I’m starting at the bottom, again … it’s really hard,” she says.

Peggy Murphy found a call center job in Redmond. “I don’t want to do it. But you gotta have a job, you gotta work,” she says. “It’s a better wage with better benefits so I ought to be happier about it. If it was my choice to have left it would have been different.”

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting