Faced with a drop in orders amid the economic downturn, AbitibiBowater will shut down one of its three printing machines for a month, resulting in temporary layoffs for 123 employees at the Catawba plant, company officials said Wednesday.
When machine No. 1 goes quiet on the first day of March, the plant will furlough the 101 production employees and 22 maintenance workers who keep it running. The machine, in operation since 1962, is the company's oldest but also its least efficient.
"The employees are doing a great job on that machine, but it's just older equipment," said human resources manager Barry Baker. "It doesn't run as fast."
The printing business typically slows down in the winter, after a spike in print advertisements and catalogues during the Christmas shopping season. AbitibiBowater's two other machines will operate as normal. Plans call for No. 1 to resume production on April 1.
"This is a slow time of year for us every year," Baker said. "In general, things pick up in April. So we're hopeful things will pick up again."
The furloughs represent the second major cost-savings move in three months at Bowater, which merged in 2007 with Canadian paper-maker Abitibi Consolidated to become AbitibiBowater.
Just after Christmas, the entire plant closed for nine days to reduce inventories. It was the first shutdown caused by economic troubles in the plant's 50-year history.
"No one knows what's right around the corner," said William "Bump" Roddey, a 12-year employee who works in the lab. "With jobs being cut everywhere else, you have to wonder: How far are we (from that)?"
Baker said the plant south of Rock Hill -- for years one of York County's largest and steadiest employers -- informed union leaders and employees of the latest plan Tuesday afternoon. The plant has 940 workers.
AbitibiBowater produces newsprint, other commercial printing products, market pulp and wood products. The Catawba operation, established in 1957, churns out coated paper for magazines and books and market pulp for paper towels, tissue and other products.
In recent years, the industry has grappled with troubles that include too much capacity, declining consumption of its products and growing competition from China.
Baker said inventories throughout the industry are high and the shutdown will help reduce overstock. It will take an estimated 14,000 tons of coated paper out of production.
Employees can use vacation time or other paid time off to continue earning money during the time the machine is shut down, Baker said. If they do not have vacation days, employees can apply for unemployment benefits.
Montreal-based AbitibiBowater employs nearly 16,000 employees at 27 pulp and paper mills and 34 wood products plants in the United States and Canada, as well as North Korea and Great Britain.
The Catawba plant has long ranked among the most profitable in the entire company. But it is not immune from the slowdown gripping much of the printing industry.
"We have corporate people that look at the demand for all of our products," Baker said. "They have to take cost out when the demand is not there."