KNAU and Arizona News
10:12 pm
Thu January 22, 2009

Snowflake paper mill cuts back again

Snowflake, AZ – The town of Snowflake has been hit harder by the economic crisis than most communities in northern Arizona. A hundred people were laid off at Catalyst Paper in a town of 5-thousand. More recently the plant has shut down for several days at a time because they don't have the demand for paper that they used to. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales talked to current and former employees about the cut backs and how they fit into the bigger economic picture.

SFX: paper drops out of fluffer, pulper spins

Catalyst Paper General Manager John McKee gives a tour of the mill. Just like hay old newspapers and magazines soon to be recycled are bailed and stacked. They wait to be sent through the cleaning process. McKee points to a conveyor belt where those bails have just been untied and fluffed. Old issues of the Republic, Newsweek and Popular Mechanic travel down a conveyor belt to a huge spinning drum called the "pulper."

MCKEE: That happens 24 hours a day seven days a week unless we don't have enough orders for our product.

And that's the problem McKee's been dealing with lately. He says the paper mill serves as a barometer for the bigger economic picture. Up until last fall they made the fluted brown paper used to construct boxes. When the economy slowed down manufacturers didn't need boxes to ship items.

So the mill shut down one of its giant machines and lay off a hundred people. Others who had seniority were bumped back to lower-paying jobs. Mark Davis was one of them. He shows off the control room.

DAVIS: Here we keep cameras on all the stuff that are really essential to us

Davis takes pride in his work. He's been with the mill for almost 34 years. He used to work here in the control room but now he has a more physical, lower-paying job.

DAVIS: We're doing jobs we did 10 years ago to stay working. We're working so we're good with that. At least you have a job. We have a job. I imagine that you worked pretty hard to get to that position. Yeah, it took a lot of years.

Davis says he took a 400 dollar a month pay cut.

Catalyst is still making newsprint on its two remaining machines but customers are ordering less. That explains their most recent move to shut down the plant for 20 days over the next quarter. Another pay cut for Davis.

DAVIS: You live on a budget so you lose pay over this so you have to rework your finances. You come to work to work. You're hired here to work. That's what you want to do.

His boss John McKee explains in his office that the newspaper industry has suffered from a steep decline in advertising sales and publishers have looked for ways to cut back.

MCKEE: Certainly anyone who subscribes to a newspaper, you would see fewer pages. You would see in most cases that your pages aren't as wide as they used to be. In a lot of situations there are sections that are no longer there. And in some of the rural areas some of the newspapers are no longer supporting rural delivery.

Last fall during the lay offs Bob Justus took early retirement just six months before he had planned to retire. He had worked for Catalyst for 46 and-a-half years most recently as the general paper mill superintendent. He talks about all the changes he's seen at his kitchen table.

JUSTUS: The problem right now is you have the paper industry that is absolutely in the dumps. It doesn't matter whether that's white paper or whether that's brown paper. Everything's changing. The world is changing. They say the computer's taking over where you read the paper on the computer well (spits) I still like that old paper in my hand and I like to read it every morning and I'm sure there are a lot of people out there. So it's never going to go away but it's going to change.

Justus says Snowflake is a tight-knit mostly Mormon community. It has a clean, wholesome, Norman Rockwell quality.

JUSTUS: The town depends a lot on that paper mill. It has for many, many years. That's the largest industry in this area. It's a big ticket item. When you shut part of that paper mill down you lose all those jobs and you're going to lose that income for the town.

Justus says he was lucky he was so close to retirement. He worries more about the older guys like Davis who remain at the plant working lower paying jobs and he worries about the young ones like Adam Gieger who lost his job at the mill.

GIEGER: I've been working with a buddy at a glass shop and running a tow truck with him just odds and ends just lookin for stuff. It hasn't been easy. We got used to making good money and it dropped off.

He made 22.50 an hour with benefits at the mill. It was considered one of the better jobs in the area. Gieger, his wife and two daughters moved in with his parents to save money.

GIEGER: The bad part was was construction slowed down about the same time. So everybody dropped off and then it made it tougher to find work up here.

One of his former co-workers has sold just about everything he owns. Another commutes down to the valley for work. One former employee went to Globe to work in the mine, then was laid off there.

Many are hoping to get called back to Catalyst. Gieger says he's number 16 on the list but he's not counting on that call.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Snowflake.