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As Verso’s future hangs in the balance, former employees try to start over

Published: Sep. 3, 2020 at 7:10 PM CDT
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WISCONSIN RAPIDS, Wis. (WSAW) - It’s been a month since Verso first shut the doors of its paper mill in Wisconsin Rapids to hundreds of its employees.

It’s not easy to rebuild a career at 51. Jim Wissbroecker, chatting with employers at a job fair in Wisconsin Rapids on Thursday, doesn’t know what the future looks like after being laid off from the mill after thirty years. He’s thinking about going back to school, maybe moving to the West Coast where his wife’s family lives.

He and dozens of other former Verso employees stopped by the job fair over Wednesday and Thursday, hosted by the Heart of Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce, looking for a job. The Chamber’s president, Angel Whitehead, said about two hundred turned out over the course of the two-day event, fewer than expected, and many of them former Verso employees.

“A lot of individuals have been with the mill for 30-plus years, and they’re waiting right now to see what’s happening,” Whitehead noted.

“It’s kinda tough after that long time to get back in the job market,” state senator Patrick Testin of Stevens Point said. He and state representative Scott Krug formed a task force in the wake of the mill’s closure in June, with the goal of helping employees transition out of the mill and help guide its future.

“This is a mill that has survived two world wars, and economic depression, countless economic downturns, but yet they were always able to keep their doors open,” Sen. Testin said.

Tim Pavlik is president of United Steelworkers Local 2-94, the union representing hundreds of Verso’s employees and others in the region. He says many employees are moving on to school, new careers--or still looking. Some are waiting on severance packages, which Whitehead said could be part of why fewer turned out for today’s job fair, while others may be holding on to hope the mill reopens under new owners.

Rumors abound regarding a possible sale, and the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association has founded a cooperative that is considering operating the mill in a partnership that would include those in the lumber industry. But any sale is going to come at a price tag far higher than the mill’s sticker price. A non-compete clause is expected as part of any sale contract, Pavlik and former Verso employers told NewsChannel 7, that would prohibit the buyer from manufacturing grades of paper that Verso already produces at other mills. That means that in addition to the cost of the mill, a buyer may also need to spend millions of dollars to retool the machinery for a different paper product in a process that could take months or longer, all while finding a way to keep the mill running in the interim.

“If you don’t have a product to cover the fixed costs on that mill, the fixed costs on that mill are just tremendous,” Pavlik said. “Selling pulp on the open market would help cover that. But it would take time in my opinion where you could get to a point where you could make a sellable product.”

The coated paper industry has seen declines for years, but the pandemic proved too much for the mill in Verso. But that wasn’t the case for some companies using coated paper to create specialty products, like Wausau Coated Products that were on hand to chat with prospective employees at the fair. For them, they saw an upswing in April for their labeling and packaging for retail products before demand decreased through the summer. But in the past six weeks, the demand has gone back to skyrocketing.

“We are definitely looking for employees right now,” production manager Tim Fox told NewsChannel 7. They’ve hired Verso employees before, and they’re looking for more to fill the ten spots they have open right now.

But to find 900 family-supporting, benefits-producing jobs like those in the area is a tough sell, Whitehead said. For many employees adrift after twenty or thirty years at the mill, rebuilding is a daunting task.

Job-seekers who didn’t have the chance to stop by Wednesday or Thursday aren’t out of luck, however; the chamber plans to continue the fair virtually for the next two weeks.

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