S. Oregon mills hiring after Chile quake

ROSEBURG — Economic aftershocks from February's devastating earthquake in Chile are now rippling across Douglas County following the destruction of many Chilean sawmills and plywood plants.

Roseburg Forest Products has hired dozens of full-time workers in recent weeks to fill a gap in the supply of sanded plywood panels previously produced in the South American country and shipped to the U.S., a company official said Wednesday.

While no one is rejoicing at the devastation created by the magnitude 8.8 earthquake that rocked Chile on Feb. 27, it has created an opportunity for 84 new permanent full-time workers in Douglas County and another 23 in Coos County.

"Our intention is to keep them," Hank Snow, vice president of human resources for RFP, said of the new workers. "No one really knows how long Chile will be out of the market — it could be six months, it could be the end of the year."

By that time, the wood products industry is hoping the sluggish market for new homes, which is now showing signs of life, will continue recovering and increase the nation's overall demand for lumber.

RFP started adding a few workers in February, and hiring began in earnest this month.

Snow said as of Monday, 65 full-time workers have been added at the Riddle plywood plant, 13 at the Dillard plant, six at the company sawmill and another 23 workers at the Coquille plywood plant in Coos County.

About 35 of the workers were already employed by the company as part-time and weekend workers and have been moved to full-time status. The rest are new hires.

Wages for beginning workers start at $14.78 an hour, moving to $16.78 after a few weeks. Experienced operators earn about $18.50, Snow said.

It's a bright spot for an industry that has seen continued downsizing and layoffs over the past couple of years.

RFP has about 2,200 workers in Douglas County. Snow said layoffs have numbered 300 at RFP plants across the country since late 2008. Many have since been called back. Some went into retraining programs and others are waiting for specific jobs to reopen.

In the recent round of hirings, with the exception of the 35 workers who went from part-time work to full-time positions, all the employees are new to the company.

Douglas Timber Operators Executive Director Bob Ragon welcomed news of the recent hirings.

"It is a little encouraging," Ragon said.

Both plywood and lumber prices have moved up since the first of the year, Ragon said, as companies restock inventories. Housing starts are still down significantly but are better than last year.

"The earthquake in Chile is a big issue," he said of the recent round of Douglas County hirings. "For (RFP), there are benefits."

According to wood products economists, major plywood suppliers in Chile have had dozens of sawmills knocked out of operation by the quake, and there's no information available on when they might return to production.

RFP's Snow said Chile has been a significant player in the sanded plywood market because of the ease of shipping panels by barge from South America to California and Gulf Coast ports. Both the Los Angeles and Houston housing markets are major drivers of plywood demand.

Snow said RFP plans to add more workers at the Riddle plant in the next month and is also starting the process of hiring summer workers to fill in for employees taking vacations.

"It's nice to have a little bit of business," he said. "The ideal situation will be for the housing market to pick up" before Chilean plants ramp up production again.

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