The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (2023)

At 6:39 a.m. On June 9, Brian King received an email telling him that his job at Verso Paper Mill, which he had hoped would see him retire, would end in less than two months.

King, 54, has already been fired from four different companies that have closed their doors permanently, mostly in the paper industry. Job hunting is nothing new for him. But that's not how things should be. When he took a shift at the Verso mill in Wisconsin Rapids in May 2018, he knew jobs at the paper mill were in decline, but he reckoned the mill had at least 10 years to live.

"I decided to go back because it was local and I thought it was pretty stable," he said. “They made decent money back then. I was like, 'Okay, let's end my career.'

King is now among the other 900 Verso workers laid off from the factory after the company announced a plant closure in June. Faced with an insecure job market, these workers face difficult choices: uproot their families or take up longer-term commuting jobs; whether they are taking a lower-paying job somewhere or are waiting for a job that offers them a comparable salary.

Since June, WPR has interviewed 20 people - current and former employees, local leaders and industry experts - about the issues facing the factory and its workers for this report.

The factory was the largest employer in the town of 18,000. He also represented an industry that has been central to Wisconsin Rapids' identity for over a century.

For decades, the Wisconsin Rapids mill's specialty was glossy magazine paper. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a noticeable but relatively gradual decline in buyers of this product turned into a sudden, precipitous decline.

Now no more clouds of steam rising from the mill chimneys and the once familiar The stench of sulfur, a by-product of papermaking, what Wisconsin Rapids residents call "the smell of money," no longer hangs over the city.

At the end of July, Verso closed the factory and laid off most of the workers. Minimal staff remain, as do a few workers who are left behind to pack materials or service millions of dollars worth of equipment. But in most cases, these workers do not know how long their work will take.

"I think it's actually harder than waking up and working shifts," King said of finding a job. “They put out resumes and hear nothing. You have companies that hire someone and they don't say they hired anyone. It's always a rollercoaster ride.”

In addition to the stress of job hunting, there's another factor Verso workers must consider: whether they can hope that a buyer for the Wisconsin Rapids plant will still show up and call them back to work.

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (1)

The Verso Paper Mill in Wisconsin Rapids ceased production at the mill in late July.Angela Mayor/WPR

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (2)

At a September 3 job fair in Wisconsin Rapids, laid-off Verso worker John Uphoff receives application information from Rudy Nieman, a representative for Land O'Lakes cheese factory in Spencer, Wisconsin.Rob Mentzer/WPR

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“I want to stay here”: Workers have job prospects, not all of them scarce

At a two-day job fair held in early September in the gym of a recently closed school building, crowds were sparse, but a few workers squeezed through the tables.

A Mosinee paper mill representative said the factory is closing, as is a label and packaging maker from Wausau and a Land O'Lakes cheese plant in Spencer, all within an hour's drive of Wisconsin Rapids. Such a journey, some former Verso employees have said, would be feasible, if not ideal.

The presence of more than 80 employers at the job fair is a sign that jobs are available for ex-Verso workers, said Angel Whitehead, president of the Heart of Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce.

"We'd love to keep the 700+ jobs here in the city of Wisconsin Rapids, but that's not necessarily realistic," Whitehead said. "Our goal is Wisconsin Rapids, Wood County, central Wisconsin and Wisconsin in general."

John Uphoff, 32, was a filter mill operator at the factory. He stayed longer than many of the workers and was released in mid-August.

"It was very difficult and the outcome is very uncertain for a lot of people in this county," Uphoff said.

Uphoff is married and has a 3-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. The family have just bought a house in nearby Port Edwards.

"I want to stay here," he said. “It is a perfect home for my son and daughter to grow up and live happily in. I will do everything in this area to help this community grow.”

Paper mill workers are skilled workers and experts say their job prospects are relatively good. In 2014,um estudo do research partners of the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Servicesinterviewed hundreds of former factory workers who lost their jobs in 2008 when Domtar closed its Port Edwards factory, just 10 miles from the Verso factory.

This study found that over 90% of workers under the age of 63 got new jobs. Only 25 percent of them moved to other paper mills, while 34 percent found another manufacturing job and 42 percent found other sectors such as agriculture or health. The average job search for workers took 21 weeks, less than the national average of 25 weeks over the same period.

But another finding of the study, said institute director Eric Giordano, is that workers who are unwilling to commute or drive to work are disadvantaged. Though they stayed in the Wisconsin Rapids area, their jobs often didn't follow suit.

Direct economic losses to the Wisconsin Rapids are likely to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, leaders said. And the effects are multiplying: Freight forwarders, service companies and restaurants rely on Verso for their customers.

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (3)

A truck drives through a residential area in Wisconsin Rapids Monday, September 21, 2020.Angela Mayor/WPR

Largest employer in Wisconsin Rapids before Wisconsin Rapids existed

The COVID-19 pandemic was the most immediate culprit about Verso's decision to close his mill, but the map of Wisconsin is littered with closed paper mills. In Whiting, just 20 miles from Wisconsin Rapids, the plant closed in 2010meant the loss of 360 jobs. The closure of Wausau Paper's century-old Brokaw mill in 2012 was so devastating that it eventually became thedissolution of this city.

The Wisconsin Rapids area was hit by the closure of a major factory in 2008, when nearly 500 workers lost their jobsDomtar has closed its Port Edwards factory.

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None of these plants employed as many people as Verso, and none was as important to the local economy when it closed as Verso in Wisconsin Rapids. But Domtar's closure sparked a year-long debate in the city about how to diversify its economy. . The closure of the Verso factory was both something no one could have imagined and something everyone was worried about.

"Shutting down or significantly downsizing this facility has been my number one nightmare, without exception," said Zach Vruwink, who served as mayor of Wisconsin Rapids from 2012 until April of this year.

In April, Shane Blaser successfully ousted Vruwink from the mayoral office. Blaser had been in the office for about eight weeks when Verso announced it was closing the factory.

Wisconsin Rapids' economy isn't just limited to paper. Hundreds of people work at Renaissance Learning, the educational software company based there. There is a Sonoco packaging facility and a McCain Foods facility in the city, among many others. In his eight years as mayor, Vruwink has worked on riverfront developments and strived to make the community welcoming of young professionals.

But Verso has always been the largest employer. Even today, Vruwink and others say they can't imagine it empty. It just doesn't make sense to the people of Wisconsin Rapids. King said he spent the summer avoiding the mill. Empty parking lots were pretty depressing.

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (4)

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (5)

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A painting in Wisconsin Rapids shows the town pool created near Mills Dam in 1913.Angela Mayor/WPR

The factory and the paper industry have always been fundamental to the neighborhood's identity. The first landfill in the regionwas founded in 1888. Two years later, the first sheet of newsprint was made in Wisconsin Rapids, then called Grand Rapids.

In 1904, the Consolidated Water Power Company opened the world's first electric paper machine: the paper mill that became the Verso Mill. The city of Wisconsin Rapids would not exist until the 1920s through the merger of Grand Rapids and Centralia, located on opposite sides of the Wisconsin River.

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The factory became a sprawling 1,000-acre campus north of the city specializing in the manufacture of glossy paper magazines, including Life magazine in its heyday. In 1992, Paper Machine #16 was hailed as the powerhouse of a "new generation of quality coated papers," according to a plaque on the building bearing the names of Consolidated Papers President George Mead and former Governor Tommy Thompson.

The interior of the mill was a town unto itself. There were workers who operated the machines and moved and maintained the inventory. There were also dozens of ancillary jobs in plumbing and electrical, maintenance, power generation, and wastewater treatment.

The factory had bridges and dams, buses and trucks came and went, and in its warehouse AGVs moved pallets without human drivers. The people who worked there were amazed at the size and complexity of the operation.

King, who has spent decades in the industry, described a "local pride" in working at the factory.

“There's a brotherhood between people who work in this industry and probably only people who've worked in the industry know what I'm talking about: shift work, being away from family at times. The hot, muggy conditions coming back smelly conditions. All of that," he said.

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (6)

Woodpiles are visible north of the Verso Lumber Mill in Wisconsin Rapids. When the plant stopped production at the end of July, many loggers lost their main customer, for some their only customer.Rob Mentzer/WPR

Outside, the raw lumber, the sawmill's fuel, is still piled up along a long gravel driveway. Wisconsin produces about 2.8 million timber cords each year, said Henry Schienebeck, managing director of Great Lakes Timber Professionals. This factory bought about 25% of that volume, or about 700,000 cables in total. (Some of the lumber Verso purchased was sourced outside of Wisconsin.)

"This is a major consumer, the largest in the region (with several federal states)," said Schienebeck.

The plant has 500 suppliers and employs around 2,000 forest trucks, said Schienebeck. For some Northwoods lumberjacks, Verso was the only customer.

The impact of the closure on the timber industry was immediate. Lumberjacks didn't get the two-month notice period for mill workers: Schienebeck said he received the message by email at 8:20 a.m. M., about two hours after the king and other workmen received it.

"At 9am, many loggers were getting phone calls telling them to stop shipping," he said.

For years, lumberjacks toyed with the idea of ​​forming a cooperative to buy and operate their own sawmills. Some Wisconsin factories have changed hands several times over the past decade, often between different foreign multinationals. The cooperative would ensure that Wisconsin companies had "skin in the pie".

Of all the opportunities for the Wisconsin Rapids plant, this is the most exciting for local leaders and some workers who also like the idea of ​​local ownership. Schienebeck said the loggers are working with a US Department of Agriculture team of experts, but he concedes there is still a long way to go before the idea becomes a reality. And for some workers, the wait will be too long.

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (7)

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A banner at a factory bus stop thanks the community of Wisconsin Rapids, August 10, 2020.Rob Mentzer/WPR

"It hits you in the heart"

State Assemblyman Scott Krug, a Republican from Rome, is among many in the community deeply connected to the factory. He still has a retirement badge that Consolidated gave to his great-grandfather.The day the company announced that the factory would be shutting downHe wrote, "My heart hurts today like never before."

"Everyone has a fear of ancestors because of this," Krug said in an interview at the end of July. "It hits you right in the soul. You can feel the pain of your ancestors just looking at this, just shaking your head like, 'What happened?'”

In June, Krug helped form a task force of local politicians and business leaders to work to save the factory, find a buyer, or organize some sort of rescue. Finding a new future for a closed factory has already happened: previously closed facilities in Fox Valley and Park Falls have reopened. The working group discussed the assets of the Wisconsin Rapids plant and what would make it attractive to a buyer: for example, the forest cooperative or another industry player.

Not the entire paper industry is in decline. The Amazon shopping boom has been good for themManufacturer of corrugated boxesThe onset of the pandemic sparked a boom in sales of household toilet favor of Fox Valley papermakers.

The problem with Wisconsin Rapids is that the capital investment required to convert the plant to these products requires hundreds of millions of dollars. Papermaking is not one thing or process, and mills that specialize in different products have profound differences.

At the time of the September job fair, State Senator Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, said the task force was primarily focused on how to help laid-off workers. That doesn't mean efforts to find a buyer are stagnant, but even a successful attempt can take months or years.

"I think there are some people who are trying to wait now in hopes that we'll overtake Aaron Rodgers Hail-Mary in the fourth quarter and a new buyer in the next few months," Testin said. . "Other employees (saying), 'Okay, time for a new chapter.'"

Every Monday in August, Brian King met with other members of his team who had been laid off. They played horseshoes in a park and talked about their next steps, trying to help each other with work contacts, letters of recommendation and emotional support.

The Wisconsin Rapids paper mill was his identity. Now the laid-off workers are looking for the next chapter. (8)

Brian Rei.Rob Mentzer/WPR

King knows he doesn't want to work after age 62 when he can start collecting Social Security benefits. That was the plan when he started at Verso and it still is.

"Whatever job I take, I'm excited to take it and head off into the sunset," King said in an interview in mid-August. "I want to work eight more years. I don't want to go beyond that. I want to retire and have a little freedom to do what I want."

King has a daughter in college, a grown son who works on the farm. Their youngest daughter is a junior in high school in Wisconsin Rapids. His wife works at a local employment center for people with disabilities. You don't want to change your family for many reasons.

When then a foreign employer offered him a job, he reflected. But it was a difficult decision. They would have to stay in an apartment from Monday to Friday and only come home on weekends, possibly for years.

In September, he accepted the job and made the first of his daily four-hour trips to Escanaba in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The factory he works in is also owned by Verso.

Being away from home and family all week is a sacrifice, he said. As for the job, so good: He reckons the business will be another eight years for him and his family before he can retire.


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