Photo courtesy Kimm Anderson/St. Cloud Times
SARTELL, Minn. - There's still some activity these days at the Verso Paper mill, just not much involving most of the 259 employees who work there.
Officials from Verso Paper today acknowledged layoff notices had been given to a large portion of the work force in the wake of the Memorial Day explosion and fire that has rendered the plant inoperable.
"I don't have an exact number but a clear majority of the hourly and salaried workers have been laid off," said Bill Cohen, a Maine-based communications and public affairs manager who has been designated as Verso Paper's spokesman about the Sartell mill. "We're working closely with all levels of government, including state, county and local, to try and make sure those folks get taken care of to the best of our ability."
A fraction of the staff remains involved in finishing a preliminary investigation and assessment of the costs and processes that would be required if the plant were to reopen, Cohen said.
"We don't really have a timetable as far as when we'll announce something more," Cohen said.
It's likely the mill will remain idle into the fall. Based on the company's initial statement to investors after the incident that killed one person and injured four others, a period of several months would be needed to complete necessary repairs.
"There's a lead time you need for materials if a rebuild decision is made," Cohen said.
Much of the warehouse that was the site of the fire has been dismantled. Cohen couldn't say whether it was a total loss, but the company has reported more than 5,000 tons of finished paper and work-in-process inventory were destroyed. That could have a value of $5 million, based on industry costs.
Any full-time employee who has worked fewer than 32 hours per week because of the shutdown should apply for unemployment benefits.
Workers can do so by visiting www.uimn.org between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, or by calling 877-898-9090 between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Weekly benefits in many cases are about 50 percent of average weekly pay, up to a state maximum that is currently $578.
The maximum number of weeks Minnesotans can receive state benefits is 26, which would take fully qualified workers through early December if the mill is unable to return to action.
About 175 employees at the Sartell mill were laid off last December after Verso idled two of its three papermaking machines.
Information from the investigations being done by the state fire marshal and the Minnesota Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not yet become available.
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