Newly Laid Off CFAC Employees Face a Volatile Job Market

By Beacon Staff

Over its 53-year history, the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company has cut staff to survive an often-volatile commodity market. But this time employees receiving pink slips will find a once flush job market has begun to slow.

The aluminum company announced last week it would lay off about 125 hourly workers when it shuts down a pot line later this month. The company gave a 60-day notice of layoffs in May, saying soaring power prices were forcing the plant to curtail aluminum production. As the shutdown progresses, more employees, including salaried workers, are expected to lose their jobs.

It’s a particularly hard time for employees to flood the market, as the local economy has slowed and once abundant jobs in industries like construction and logging have decreased.

“Layoffs are always difficult, but there’s a lot of uncertainty right now and the economy isn’t very good,” Dave Toavs, president of the plant’s union, the Aluminum Workers Trade Council, said. “In the past, guys used to have fallback jobs in construction or logging where you could go work for a few months and then come back when the plant started hiring again. Those options just aren’t there like they were.”

The local labor market is slower this summer than it’s been in the past eight or 10 years, Laura Gardner, supervisor of the Flathead Job Service Work Center, said. There are currently 200 fewer jobs advertised through the job service than there was at the same time last year.

The number of logging jobs and subsequently sawmill work, Gardner said, began declining nearly a decade ago. Relatively few positions exist in those markets today. Construction jobs, however, just began their drop this past winter, she said.

“The decline in construction and the housing market is the big reason we have so many fewer job openings this year as opposed to last year,” Gardner said. “It’s going to be tougher to help people get into some kind of construction field, and laboring jobs, because they’re usually related to construction, are also fewer than we’ve seen in the past.”

Statewide, employment in the construction industry isn’t growing as quickly as it has been in prior years, according to statistics from the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. As a seasonal industry, construction shows large spikes between winter and summer months. In May of 2007, employment in construction was at 121 percent of its January employment; in May of 2008, employment in construction was only at 113 percent of its January level.

Flathead County unemployment rates have also climbed since last year, jumping from 2.8 percent in May of 2007 to 4.5 percent in May of this year. The change isn’t unexpected given the high rate of employment growth and low unemployment rates over the past three years, economist Barbara Wagner of the state’s Department of Labor and Industry said. Still, the shift indicates the local economy is slowing, she added.

Russ Gerad, a CFAC mechanic working in the heavy equipment shop, has grappled with the Montana job market since moving to the state with his family seven years ago. Last week, he found his name on the list of CFAC employees losing their jobs.

“I came here because I want to raise my three kids here, but it’s been hard to find steady work,” he said. “It seems like it’s not uncommon for a guy in Montana who’s well qualified and can do a lot of things to still find himself having six or seven jobs over 10 years.”

Even with 25 years of experience working on heavy equipment, Gerad said it’s been difficult to find jobs, especially ones with benefits or where pay is equitable to experience. Construction work isn’t the catch-all option people often make it out to be, he added, since work is inconsistent and often limited to the summer months when Gerad wants to spend more time with his kids.

“This job (CFAC) is one of the best jobs in the valley, and it’s a great company to work for,” Gerad said. “But, I’m not a swing employee. I won’t be waiting around for them to call me back. I want steady work, and this evidently isn’t the company for it.”

With the local job market looking more daunting than in years past, Toavs said plant employees are especially hopeful that pending federal grants and programs will help ease the transition into other fields.

“If you were laid off in the 80s, all you got was 26 weeks of unemployment and then that was it,” he said. “That’s one instance where we’re definitely better off now than we were 20 years ago.”

Displaced worker funding is available through the Flathead Job Service Work Center for any worker laid off from a job. However, federal funding for those services, has been consistently cut over the past six years, Gardner said. The local agency’s displaced worker funding decreased 22 percent in the last year.

The plant has contacted Montana’s Congressional delegation and the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, asking for help in obtaining training grants and other assistance that might be available for CFAC workers.

“With the more limited funding we have now, we’re hoping those grants will come through and be able to help with reemployment and retraining needs for these employees,” Gardner said. “We’re feeling good about the possibilities of those being approved.”

The company should find out if it’s been accepted to those programs within the next 40 days.

Meanwhile, employees like Gerad say there’s little else to do, but start the search for new work.

“If you’ve got three kids and bills to pay, you’ve got to find work,” he said. “First, though, I’m going to go camping with some friends and my family and just enjoy the outdoors, sit by a lake somewhere and be thankful that I live in this beautiful place.”