Workers try to find life after lumber mill

Published 7:18 pm Friday, June 26, 2009

This is how life without a job begins: With a man from the state, standing in the center of an old high school auditorium, telling you about a world you’re not entirely familiar with. A world that uses words like “Internet” and “career centers,” where debit cards and direct deposits have replaced checks and paper money.

The last time James J. Moorer was laid off from work by the company that would become Chapman Forest Products was in 1976. A gallon of gas cost .59 cents, the country had just turned 200 years old, and personal computers were infants.

And, to Moorer, they might as well have stayed that way.

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“I wouldn’t even know how to cut it on,” Moorer said about computers following a meeting of Chapman Forest Products’ employees on Friday at Georgiana High School. Many of those employees have already lost their job. Others are only living on borrowed time, because Chapman Forest announced on June 15 it would be closing the plant.

The Office of Workforce Development gave the workers packets of information about state services, including unemployment benefits, health insurance, and job training.

Moorer spent 40 years with Chapman Forest Products, when it was both Union Camp and International Paper. He’s a reflection of the bulk of the company’s employees: highly skilled laborers, but skilled at what they’ve been doing for a longtime.

“This mill has been in our family all of our lives,” said Jake Halford, 53, who worked in the log yard. He and three of his brothers have given years of sweat to the company.

And blood. Halford’s oldest brother, Billy, was killed earlier this year on site after being struck by machinery.

Halford said news of the company’s closure was a shock, but not entirely unexpected.

“We’d heard rumors,” he said. “The bad thing is there’s really nothing out there. No one’s hiring. I’m too old to go to college and start something new. Right now I’m just going to draw my unemployment and hope.”

But even drawing unemployment is a challenge, said Halford. The state’s jobless system has become automated, with toll-free numbers and Internet applications replacing person-to-person interaction.

“I got on the phone the other day and tried the number and got frustrated…I just quit,” said Halford. “And I’m not too familiar with a computer.”

Others, like Anthony Crenshaw, see college as an alternative. Crenshaw started work in Chapman after graduating high school in 1990.

“I guess I’m going to go back to school,” he said.

Moorer and Halford just want to earn a living.

“The heat doesn’t bother me,” said Moorer. “I just want a place to work.”