LUKE — For the first time in more than 130 years, the Luke paper mill that once employed 2,000 workers sits idle.
“It’s hard to walk through the mill today,” Greg Harvey, United Steel Workers 676 president, said on Monday.
The union represents 515 workers of the nearly 700 whose jobs were terminated with the closure of the Verso plant that has served as the economic hub for the Tri-Towns for more than a century.
“There’s a deafening silence here that we’ve not heard before,” said Harvey, who estimated about 100 workers remained on site Monday.
That number was expected to be well under 100 at mid-week following the official end of paper production at the Luke mill that occurred at 3:57 a.m. Friday, according to Harvey.
Monday's worker activity included trucking inventory to Verso customers and warehouses as directed by the company.
An effects bargaining agreement was reached last week between USW Local 676, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1653 and the Ohio-based Verso Corp.
The pact reportedly will provide medical coverage for terminated employees until the end of this year.
“That is probably the biggest win on this severance package,” Harvey said.
“Severance packages will never be termed good," he said. "We are pleased with he results of the effects bargaining that were negotiated.”
Severance pay that amounts to 1 percent of a worker’s total earning will be granted through the agreement.
For example, a production worker with 20 years of service will be awarded $10,000 to $15,000.
New workers at the mill will also be covered and will receive not less that $1,000 in severance money. Harvey said up to 40 newly-employed workers are in that group.
The agreement also, in part, calls for all mill workers to be immediately vested in their 401K company match rather than waiting five years as normally required.
The agreement also would provide $3,000 in a one-time payment to any mill worker who would be employed at another Verso facility.
Harvey said he was not aware of any employees who were interested in seeking further employment at a Verso location outside of the Luke mill.
Verso and the unions at the Luke Mill successfully concluded effects bargaining last Thursday, resulting in a number of enhancements to the existing local collective bargaining agreement," said Kathi Rowzi, Verso vice-president of communications and public affairs.
"Among others, these enhancements include provisions related to extended company-subsidized health insurance coverage, along with accelerated 401(k) vesting and financial contributions. In addition, employees were extended 12-month access to the Verso Employee Assistance Program, which makes available wide-ranging counseling on personal, family, financial and legal issues free of charge.
"The agreement also allows and encourages Luke Mill employees to apply for open positions at other Verso facilities and makes available a one-time, $3,000 payment to anyone who relocates.
Rowzi also said the agreement also involved any possible sale of the Luke mill by Verso.
"In addition, successorship language provides that if the mill is sold, the buyer must agree in writing to recognize the union, assume and apply the existing collective bargaining agreement or negotiate a new agreement with the union," she said.
Mill workers may also file for unemployment benefits when they are no longer working at the paper manufacturing plant.
The state of Maryland will pay benefits to unemployed mill workers without regard for severance pay compensation, Harvey said.
Verso has indicated its interest in selling the Luke mill. Maryland officials have said about a dozen companies have expressed some interest in the mill as potential buyers.
Non-disclosure agreements prohibit disclosure of the identity of any companies that may an interest in the mill.