Last days for many at the Boise paper mill in International Falls

After 36.5 years working at the Boise paper mill in International Falls, Fred Rusch (center) took an early retirement offer from the company. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

INTERNATIONAL FALLS, Minn. – The Boise paper mill here is spectacularly huge and loud. Pulp is stirred like oatmeal in circular vats before being fed into the “wet ends” of four paper machines, spread flat, and gradually dried as it moves along a series of spools and conveyors before eventually coming out as paper. In most parts of the mill, a person has to yell to be heard and a sign on the door of one control booth reads, “Come in. Close the Door. Now Speak!”

Amid the racket, 58-year-old Fred Rusch, who has worked at the mill for almost 37 years, stood next to a cement pillar and a table holding two retirement party sheet-cakes. Both were frosted with Harley-Davidson logos, matching his t-shirt and reflecting his longtime enthusiasm for motorcycles. Until two days ago, Rusch worked the pulp end of paper machine number two, which will be shuttered on Monday as part of a massive layoff that will cost 265 workers their jobs. His eyes were moist as co-workers approached carrying fat slices of cake, some putting their hands on his shoulder and wishing him well.

“People ask what I am going to do,” Rusch said. “I say, ‘whatever I want.’” After so many years, it will be a big change, not coming to the mill in the morning. “But the nicest thing is I won’t have to work the night shift ever again,” he said. “I will no longer have to get up at 4:30 to go to work.” Instead, he plans to ride his motorcycle more and visit his girlfriend, who lives in Alabama.

What exactly hundreds of laid-off Boise employees—including those who accepted early retirement packages like Rusch—will do now is the topic of much discussion here. International Falls, a city of 6,400 on the Canadian border, is surrounded by natural beauty, such as Rainy Lake and Voyageurs National Park, but it doesn’t offer a lot of high-paying jobs outside the mill. Mayor Bob Anderson and others have formed citizen committees to brainstorm ideas for job creation and retention, and also to diversify the local economy.

Boise and the Minnesota Workforce Center here have been assisting people ever since the layoffs were announced in May. They’ve offered a variety of assistance programs to employees losing their jobs, including sessions describing retraining options and how to interview for new jobs.

Boise public affairs manager Lori Lyman, an International Falls native, said workers received severance packages “per company policy,” depending on particular job descriptions and lengths of employment. “We worked with the rapid response team from the state of Minnesota,” she said. “The local office is here to provide services to the workforce so they know what is available out there.” As Lyman walked through the plant, pausing at Rusch’s party, she said, “This is a hard time for everybody.”

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Workers interested in learning new skills can access financial assistance through a federal program called Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), which helps pay for tuition, books and even transportation to classes. Some former Boise employees are training to work on power lines or become welders, nurses, social workers, dietitians or small engine mechanics. One employee wants to be a mortician. Some have found new jobs in town, like an Information Technology specialist who now works at a local credit union. Others are seeking work elsewhere. At least two Boise employees are heading for the oil fields of North Dakota.

And others are retiring. “Basically, they were going to be terminating so many people, they gave you the option to retire early,” Rusch said. “And so they offered us a compensation package. I get a year’s wage to retire.” He said he’ll consider retraining, but would “like to stay retired.” He thinks if he’s careful with his money—he’s got a pension and a 401K account—he may be able to swing it.

“I’m okay with it,” he said. “Honestly, I was sort of doing some things trying to look into early retirement anyway.” Rusch has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and said, “I don’t want to work up until I can’t work anymore.”

Carol Stegmeir, a career counselor for 16 years at the local Workforce Center, said her office has met with more than 120 Boise employees already. About a third are interested in retraining, mostly the younger people in their 20s and 30s. Stegmeir calls the federal TAA program “dislocated worker services on steroids.”

Kelsie Briggs (right) talks with Carol Stegmeir at the Minnesota Workforce Center Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in International Falls, Minn. Briggs is a former Boise worker who was laid off from her job as a store keeper at the mill. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

Bonita Korzinski, who was laid off from Boise in July after four years of scheduling and payroll responsibilities, went to every help session she could and spent time one-on-one with a Workforce Center counselor. She’s taking classes now to become a financial advisor. “I picked something I wanted to do, finance,” said Korzinski, 28, whose husband still works at the mill. “It’s something I did a little of anyway. I signed up for school and TAA paid for all my schooling, my books, even a new computer.”

“When the news hit me, I was really upset,” she said of the layoff announcement. “I’d never been told I don’t have a job. I can’t sleep at night unless everything is in order.” But now, given her new career track, she’s excited. “I always think when one door closes another opens. I’m optimistic.”

Korzinski is glad she doesn’t have to leave International Falls. “I love the lake,” she said. “I love the hunting. I love being outdoors and the small town feel. I don’t like the businesses of the city.”

A common theme at the Workforce Center is that people want to stay. Many of the soon-to-be former Boise workers were born and raised in International Falls. They have families and homes that might become harder to sell. Whether staying is possible once the unemployment insurance and severance packages run out is an open question.

Sometimes it’s just not possible, as Blake Peterson found out.

As soon as the layoffs were announced, Peterson, a Boise warehouse manager for five years, started looking for a new job, first in his home city and then elsewhere. He found one quickly, but with a mining company on the iron range in Virginia, almost two hours south. He took it because he and his wife Beth, who also works full time at the local driver and vehicle services office, support four kids, three of whom live at home.

With the bare walls still reflecting the newness of the place, Blake Peterson sits down to eat Wednesday, September 25, 2013 in Buhl, Minn. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

“At the time I was unsure where I was going to be,” he said. “I interviewed and ended up getting the job, so I took it. I couldn’t afford to pass on it based on an unknown situation.” He didn’t consider retraining. “For a 50-year-old guy, that’s not going to be a big life change,” he said. “Besides, I couldn’t afford to quit working to do it.”

But the new job has divided his family, with Blake now living in Buhl near Virginia, and Beth and the kids living in the family home on Rainy Lake in International Falls. He thought about renting, but found the Virginia rental market tight and expensive. So the two bought a second house, in the hopes they might be able to sell it one day for a financial return. “Now, we have an extra house payment, extra cable TV, extra everything,” he said.

Blake Peterson hopes he’ll be able to return to International Falls in the next two to five years and perhaps even get back on at the mill, especially if Boise’s recently-announced sale to Illinois-based Packaging Corporation of America turns out to be a good thing. “My ultimate goal would be to see Boise come out of this strong and have the opportunity to get back in there in some capacity and stay in International Falls. That is my true goal at this time.”

In the meantime, he drives home on the weekends, arriving Friday night after work and leaving on Monday morning by 4:30 to catch his shift at U.S. Steel.

“I am a pretty adaptable person,” he said. “I’d rather be home with the family, no doubt about it. I miss all that kind of stuff. But it’s easier for me than my wife. When I leave, I come down to a quiet place. I’m like a traveling salesman almost. My wife still has three kids at home and she does all the work.” He worries about mundane things like how she’ll plow their long driveway this winter.

Beth, his wife, is taking it harder. “Right now I live for the weekends.”

“I’m sad every day when I come back home and he’s not here,” she said, adding that she goes to bed earlier than she used to and texts her kids too much. The couple had just gotten to a point where they felt settled, working on the deck and building a sauna. “And then it all gets tipped over.”

Beth Peterson talks about life after her husband Blake Peterson was laid off from his job at the Boise paper plant in International Falls, Minn. To Beth's right is her stepson Chris Peterson who moved from the cities to be closer to his dad this summer, but all that was turned on its head when Blake Peterson took a job over 100 miles away at U.S. Steel near Virginia, Minn. (MPR Photo/Derek Montgomery)

“I feel like we have two lives,” she said. “I feel like a part-time wife.” She’s considering moving to Buhl at some point if she has to, once their last child is out of high school in a year. In the meantime, she’s in limbo, which means, “I can’t plan my life very well.”

Stegmeir at the Workforce Center thinks that after the layoffs are complete, and especially after unemployment and severance benefits start to run out, she’ll see a lot more former Boise employees coming through the door. “I am anticipating we will be working with this for two years,” she said.

She and others in her office are putting in long hours to counsel people, and are even advertising for additional help. “We’re staying late at night to get stuff done,” Stegmeir said. “But we have jobs so we’re not complaining.”

The stakes are high in International Falls and Ground Level will follow efforts here to forge a more diverse economic future in the coming months as part of our project “Rethinking a Company Town.”