Northwest Hardwoods laid off more than 40 employees at its Longview mill in the wake of the company’s struggle to secure a steady supply of raw materials.
The hardwood company says it temporarily laid off second-shift workers in July, but last week made those layoffs permanent.
The raw material shortage means the company can’t support a second shift, said Brian Narramore, vice president of human resources at Northwest Hardwoods.
The lumber company is a big regional player in the hardwood industry, processing alder and maple woods in Longview and several other locations in Washington and Oregon.
“We can sell as much as we could produce right now. This has everything to do with the limited raw material supply,” Narramore said.
The company tried to prevent layoffs for the last year by reducing hours and participating in a state work share program, Narramore said, but now the company has exhausted those programs.
“We’ve been limping along all year,” he said.
Yet union officials say workers were surprised by the job cuts, because they say there was speculation hours might rise again.
“It was kind of a blind spot,” said Scott Keatley, president of the Woodworkers Local Lodge 536, which represents the mill’s employees.
After the 46 layoffs, the union now represents about 82 to 84 employees at the Longview mill, Keatley said.
The woodworkers union is trying to connect the laid off employees to state and federal government programs that sends people back to school to be trained in another industry, he said.
It could take about 8 to 10 weeks before employees know if they’ll be eligible for the federal retraining program, but some workers are already taking advantage of the state assistance, said Wayne Thompson, district business representative of the woodworkers union.
Narramore said the company wants to increase production, but it’s uncertain when that will be feasible. Other Northwest locations in Washington experienced layoffs earlier this year, he said.
He noted that timber companies are harvesting fewer trees in response to international competition.
West Coast log exports to Asia have steadily declined for well over a year as result of the strong U.S. dollar. In the first quarter of 2016, West Cost log exports fell 6.6 percent compared to the same quarter in 2015, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
At the Port of Longview, log exports were down 25 percent in the first five months of the year compared to the same period last year, hitting 39,700 million board feet.
And in October, a key lumber trade agreement between Canada and the U.S. expired, leaving American timber companies to compete with heavily subsidized Canadian lumber. Although there was a yearlong grace period, according to Woodworking Network, it’s not clear whether a new agreement will be struck. The outcome will could affect hardwood industry as well, because timber companies typically only harvest hardwood (such as alders and maples) when they harvest softwoods (such as conifers). If stiffer competition from Canada causes timber companies to reduce harvests, that could mean a limited hardwood supply as well, Narramore noted.
A shortage of Washington hardwoods has some producers turning to Canada for supplies, said Dave Sweitzer, manager of Western Hardwoods Association, a Camas-based trade group.
Regionally, harvest rates have been cut in half over the last 20 years as timber companies have faced logging restrictions and litigation, Sweitzer added.