Agrium workers await news

Employees stay on the job while waiting to hear of plant’s future

Posted: Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Although the future of a Nikiski fertilizer plant employing 155 people remains uncertain, the plant has laid out the groundwork for, and employees are being mindful of, a possible life after Agrium.

“I think in general most people are willing to just hang in there and see where this goes because there’s still the potential that it won’t close,” said Jim Hedberg, an operator at Agrium.

Hedberg said that, although a lot of his co-workers have been making inquiries about other job opportunities, few are jumping the gun and switching jobs before Agrium has made an announcement as to whether the plant will have to close. Agrium has announced that unless it finds an affordable source of gas in the near future, it will cease production Oct. 31.

“Basically what I think what it boils down to is how much of an uncertainty factor are you wiling to live with,” Hedberg said.

Agrium has been offering employees incentives not to quit before the company determines whether it will close.

The company is offering employees a minimum severance package of $15,000 and has been paying employees a portion of their severance package in advance for each quarter that they remain with the company during this period of uncertainty, said Don Zacharias, human resources superintendent.

Workers also are hanging tight, because outside Agrium there are few local jobs available for employees who want to remain in the same industry, Hedberg said.

Workers could receive jobs and wages comparable to the wages they receive at Agrium and not have to move by working in oil fields on the North Slope. But many are resistant to working on the North Slope because it would require them to leave their families for long periods of time, Hedberg said.

“It’s a hard decision to leave your home,” he said. “When I go home at the end of my shift, I’m with my family, instead of going to the Slope and being away from my family.”

Hedberg said he’s heard from at least a half dozen co-workers who have said they likely would leave Alaska rather than leave their families for the Slope or abandon their line of work.

To help prepare employees in the case of a closure, Agrium has organized an employee peer support group.

Marilu Moreno-Jones, a lead chemist at Agrium and member of the peer group, said a survey asking employees what they would do should Agrium close found that 5 percent planned to start a small business, 10 percent planned to go back to school and 85 percent planned to look for another job.

Although Agrium remains optimistic it will obtain gas for another year, it has been working with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development to prepare employees for a possible shutdown, said Chris Sonnichsen, plant manager.

“We have worked on a shutdown plan,” he said by telephone. “So we have the framework there in case that’s where we end up.”

With the help of the department, for example, Agrium has applied for funding assistance for employees under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Reform Act.

TAA offers a pool of federal funds that can be applied for by a company that may be facing a shutdown as a result of trade with other countries.

Agrium’s TAA application has been approved and its employees made eligible for TAA benefits if the plant closes. TAA benefits include assistance with relocation costs, job search allowances and job retraining assistance. And employees also may qualify for similar benefits under the Workforce Investment Act.

There also may be opportunities for employees to transfer to other Agrium facilities, Sonnichsen said.

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