East Millinocket paper mill to restart May 5

Posted April 28, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:21 p.m.

EAST MILLINOCKET, Maine — The Katahdin Paper Co. LLC mill will restart May 5 with enough orders to keep at least one machine running for the rest of that month, mill officials said Tuesday.

Exactly how many workers furloughed since April 10 will return to work remains unclear.

“We are still working through that right now. We are looking at a couple different options,” said Rick Grunthaler, the mill’s human resources manager. “We are also looking at bringing in key personnel a day or two early to get the machines warmed up.”

Company officials had said early last month that routine maintenance and a lack of orders forced the shutdown and furlough of as much as three-quarters of the mill’s 491 employees. Only the maintenance staff, about a quarter of the work force, remained on the job.

The Katahdin mill typically ceases production for seven to 10 days every year, usually in April — the slow season for the paper industry — to service its biomass boilers and other equipment, paying maintenance workers overtime to work around the clock to bring the boilers back on line.

But the lack of orders caused by the recession, and Katahdin Paper’s policy of conserving as much cash as possible by operating only with orders in hand, made the usual practice of paying workers overtime for work that could be done on regular pay an unwise option, according to the company.

The mill’s No. 6 machine, which makes telephone directory-grade paper, will start May 5 and continue for a week, said Bill Peterson, director of human resources for Fraser Papers, the company that Brookfield Asset Management pays to manage its mills in East Millinocket and Millinocket.

Then the mill’s No. 5 machine, which makes newsprint, will start on May 11, Peterson said.

“We can’t make every product on one machine, so we will bounce back and forth,” Grunthaler said.

The fact that as of Monday neither machine had enough orders to run continuously signals that the mill’s entire work force will likely not be employed the entire month, only part of it, Peterson said. But that could change.

“It’s based on orders,” Peterson said Tuesday. “We have orders that come in all the time. Yesterday we had orders come in for November. That’s good, but it doesn’t do us any good for now because we are not going to make those orders and sit on them.”

With its sister mill in Millinocket temporarily idled since September as Fraser and Brookfield Asset Management officials look to change the mill’s steam generation power from oil to biomass, the East Millinocket mill’s furloughs threatened Katahdin Paper’s status as the region’s largest employer.

The company had shut down the No. 5 paper machine on Feb. 9, idling about 140 hourly workers for a month before calling them back on March 9. That furlough was implemented as part of efforts to build cash flow by running paper machines only with orders in hand.

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