5 years after paper plant closed, many still struggle

Crews tearing down International Paper plant

COURTLAND, Ala. (AP) — The nearly 1,100 workers who lost high-paying jobs when Lawrence County’s largest employer ended operations are still feeling the impact of the closure years later.

International Paper discontinued its operations in the northern Alabama county five years ago this month, The Decatur Daily reported.

The ramifications affected not only the displaced workers but their families, the newspaper reported.

The announcement came in the fall of 2013.

“When it first came out on the floor, we thought they were joking, but when I saw the look on our manager’s face I knew it wasn’t a joke,” said former International Paper employee Valerie Young, now 64.

Young said she was more fortunate than most IP workers. The company transferred her to its Selma plant, where she was able to get the final year she needed to be eligible for 25-year retirement.

“A lot of people who worked there couldn’t move or IP didn’t have jobs for them,” she said. “Some people got jobs at plants in Decatur. Some took jobs paying a lot less doing whatever they could. I knew quite a few people who went from making more than $30 an hour to $12 an hour. I don’t know how they are able to make it.”

The decision to permanently close the facility was driven by “demand decline for uncoated freesheet paper products in the United States,” company spokesman Tom Ryan said in an email to the newspaper.

Economic ripples from the shutdown also dealt a brutal blow to the local school system and the county and municipal governments who relied on the company for much of their revenue. The IP manufacturing plan’s annual payroll before it closed was $86 million.

While the schools, the county and several municipalities have managed to maintain most services on much leaner budgets, some local governments are struggling to cover basic expenses. Both the county government and the schools have fewer employees than they did five years ago and offer fewer programs and services.

“The general public doesn’t understand,” County Commissioner Kyle Pankey said. “People say the money is there. There’s not much more we can cut. This county doesn’t have the money to pave roads and do things it needs to do.”

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