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Woodgrain lays off more than 200

The decision, which was announced to employees in a Tuesday morning meeting at Carey Foster Hall, was prompted by a roof collapse earlier this month that damaged vital machinery

Photo Credit: KEVIN SPERL - Woodgrain Millwork, shown above, laid off more than 200 of its employees in response to a roof collapse that damaged vital machinery.

Following a closed employee meeting at Carey Foster Hall late Tuesday morning, the Prineville Woodgrain Millwork plant laid off more than 200 employees.

The move was prompted by a roof collapse on Friday, Nov. 14 that damaged machinery vital to the plant’s operation as well as water, electrical, and gas lines. Nobody was harmed in the incident.

"We are very thankful no one was injured and all of our associates are safe," Greg Easton, vice-president of millwork division wrote in an emailed statement. "Unfortunately, the part of the facility where the roof collapsed is integral to the operation of the facility. After analyzing the situation and the available options, the company has decided to cease many of the operations at the Prineville location for the foreseeable future. A significant portion of the workforce will be affected in the coming weeks."

About 130 employees were laid off effective Tuesday and about 85 workers will be retained through December to help clean up the damaged plant. Those who were let go were given their pay stub and a gift certificate to Erickson's Thriftway.?

The decision left many suddenly in need of a new job and without health insurance coverage, which Woodgrain management said would no longer be effective after midnight Tuesday.

“What pissed me off the most was the insurance,” said forklift operator Tony McLain.

“I would have expected more out of the mill,” added fellow forklift driver Jeff Jones. “Everything was completely shut off today, no kind of severance pay or nothing.”

Easton stated in his email that Woodgrain Millwork has operations across the country and is offering employment at its other facilities to affected employees, including relocation assistance.

Such plants are located in Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Virginia and North Carolina. However, for some laid off employees, moving to a new plant is not a viable choice.

“Unfortunately, I own my home here in Prineville and relocating is just not an option for me,” said Doreen Matison, a cutter at the local plant.

Jones is in a similar boat and has no plans to relocate.

“Hopefully, some people take advantage of that offer,” he added.

Easton stated that the local plant will continue to operate the MDF moulding line and pellet mill that were not affected by the roof collapse. Steve Forrester, who worked as the plant’s general manager from 1998 to 2008, believes that the pellet and moulding operations may have been all that stood in the way of complete closure of the Prineville facility.

“If Woodgrain had not been a good community partner and had not made those investments into the Prineville facility, we might have lost that operation in its entirety," said Forrester.

Forrester, who is currently the Prineville City Manager, has been in contact with Woodgrain officials since the roof collapse with the intent of providing local government assistance to repair the plant and help its displaced employees.

Though he has not toured the plant and seen the damage, he noted that the cut and rip line machinery was damaged, which halted much of the facility’s operation.

“That (ripping and cutting lumber) is the first step in processing industrial lumber,” Forrester explained. “When that was compromised, it really stopped any raw material from entering the plant. A big part of the workforce is involved in that first step.”

The laid-off employees left the meeting unsure about their future with Woodgrain. According to Matison, many employees asked if the plant would be repaired and their jobs restored.

“They said they can’t promise when they would be coming back because they don’t know,” she said.

Jones, on the other hand, was left believing the closed portions of the plant would stay that way.

“Their statement to us is they basically have no future plans to open up what fell,” he said.

Woodgrain officials did not state whether they would repair and reopen the damaged portion of the facility. Attempts to reach Easton and local plant manager Benji Barron for additional information were not successful by press deadline.

However, Forrester noted that if Woodgrain were to fix the damage, employees would still have to wait a long time before returning to work.

“Even if they decided they were going to rebuild the facility and started tomorrow, in my opinion, the work that would need to be done would take six months to a year to complete.”

The loss of 200 jobs was a big hit to the local economy. The recession that fully engaged in 2008 had pushed unemployment in Crook County to over 20 percent. But slow, steady economic improvement had seen the county add 130 new jobs in 2014, and unemployment was at 10.1 percent in October.

To help the numerous displaced workers, Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council will be hosting several information sessions during the next couple weeks.

"We are going to be going over how to register for unemployment and training service, and hopefully someone will be here from Cover Oregon who will go over how to apply for that," said Tina Simmons, an employment counselor with COIC.

Simmons went on to say that COIC will pursue a national emergency grant to help the affected workers.

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