‘Coming up short’

Tom Milstead/Torrington Telegram Steven Phillips is one of 92 Western Sugar employees who will be left looking for employment when the sugar line shuts down for the final time in January.

Western Sugar workers, employment task force looking for answers after January factory shutdown

TORRINGTON – At some point in January, on a date that hasn’t been determined, it will be quitting time at the Western Sugar Cooperative beet processing facility in Torrington. 

For 92 of the people making the trek to the parking lot that day, it will be their last time. Western Sugar President and CEO Rodney Perry told the Telegram in November the current sugar processing campaign will be the last – and for the first time since 1923, beet sugar will not be processed in Torrington. Over the last few years, the company invested in its facilities in Scottsbluff, Neb. and Fort Morgan, Colo. – a decision that resulted in the mass lay-off and the end of the sugar line in Torrington.

For many of those workers, it will be the last day they can count on a steady paycheck. 

“I’m going to have to go try to find a different job so we can actually try to survive,” said Steven Phillips, one of the 92 people who will be laid off by Western Sugar. “It’s really tough.” 

The end of the line

There is a worst-case scenario for Torrington and Goshen County. 

If all 92 displaced employees were to pack up and leave town, it would be devastating. According to the University of Wyoming’s Center for Business and Economic Analysis, the county could be looking at direct losses of $4.2 million in labor income and a loss of $47.5 million in lost output, according to IMPLAN: Economic Impact Analysis Planning, an economic scenario analysis tool. 

The analysis also found that indirect losses to Torrington and Goshen County could be another $3 million of lost labor income, and $12.2 millions in lost output through reductions in business and household spending – which could result in the loss of an additional 96 jobs throughout Goshen County. 

Those number assume that worst case scenario. While it’s unlikely that will come to fruition, Steven Phillips’ situation shows it might be necessary for some of the displaced employees to look for employment outside of Goshen County. 

“In Torrington, Wyo., there isn’t much there at all,” Phillips said. 

Phillips has some years under his belt at Western Sugar, and at one point he was a full-time employee. Like many employees, he knew the shutdown was coming – Western Sugar first announced their intentions in Sept. 2016. That said, Western Sugar never told Phillips this was the last campaign. According to Phillips, he only heard this was the last campaign after a friend heard the news from a few Western Sugar union employees. 

“I have a friend that was a manager at Burger King,” he said. “He was talking about how people in the union got their 30-day notices. I guess he knew somebody in the union. That’s how I found out they would be closing soon. 

“Us low people, we don’t get told much of anything. We go there, we do our job and we go home. The only people who were privy to stuff like that would be the supervisors, and they were probably told not to tell anybody.”

Once the news got out, Phillips said morale around the facility dropped – and so did the employee count. 

“We had 12 people quit,” he said. “They had the layoff list up, letting everyone know who wouldn’t be coming back. They all quit and went and found different jobs.”

But that wasn’t an option for everyone. Phillips already works another job at McDonald’s to make ends meet. Even with seasonal campaign work, it was tough to pay the bills. Without it, Phillips said, it could be impossible. 

“They don’t guarantee me 40 hours a week,” Phillips said. “That’s why I was working two jobs – so I could keep up on bills. Now that it’s shutting down, we’re going to be coming up short on our bills.”

Perry told the Telegram in the same interview the employees at the Torrington facility are welcome to apply for jobs in Scottsbluff or any of the other Western Sugar facilities. Right now, that’s a possibility for Phillips – but it would mean the end of his time at McDonald’s because of the gas mileage. If he’s hired on in Scottsbluff, he says he’d actually miss out on about $200 per pay period. 

“I’m going to attempt it,” he said. “I’m not going to have enough gas to be able to commute from Scottsbluff to Torrington. If I get on with the sugar factory there, I’m going to have to quit McDonald’s. I wouldn’t work in the county anymore.”

And just like that, the worst-case scenario of the displaced workers leaving the county becomes possible. 

A rapid response

Given the urgency of the employees to find work and to prevent that worst-case scenario, the Department of Workforce Services and Employment and Training have implemented a rapid response protocol to help the 92 workers find employment or seek training. 

According to Gilbert Servantez, center manager for the Department of Workforce Services in Torrington, the rapid response is a state-mandated protocol that comes into play whenever a business shuts down. The team must include DWS and Employment and Training, and Servantez. In this instance, Eastern Wyoming College, the Goshen Economic Development Corporation will be involved and Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution will be also involved in the response. 

“We thought that (WMCI) would be a good idea because around the state, there are a handful of positions that need to be filled,” Servantez said. “We just thought that would be a good idea to invite them. That is what we’re looking at to this point.”

Servantez said DWS is looking at performing the rapid response in early January. The team will meet with the displaced workers and determine how to get them back to work – whether it be through education or training. 

“Our No. 1 goal is to find employment for these workers here,” he said. “We want our workers to stay here, if at all possible. They have homes here and they’ve lived here for most of their lives. Our goal is to try our hardest to keep these people here. What we’re looking at are other businesses in Wyoming that are currently hiring. That’s another thing that we’re doing. We’re calling business that are currently hiring here in Wyoming.”

Servantez said the displaced workers could be eligible for what he called “displaced worker dollars.” Those financial resources are only able to be used for training and employment purposes. 

“They’re dollars for training,” he said. “They’re dollars if they want to go back into post-secondary education, we can possibly help out with that. It can involve post-secondary or something like CDL training. There has to be a plan in place to be a displaced worker. Say for instance a person comes to us and they say they have a job in Casper, but their funds are a little low for transportation costs. At that point in time because they have a job, and we see in writing that they do have a job, we will be able to assist that person with transportation costs moving forward because of the job being in Casper. 

“We’re just not going to give these people money and say ‘here you go.’ There’s got to be a plan in place, and that plan is employment.”

One option for the displaced workers is to use those dollars in the training programs offered at EWC. Roger Humphrey, Vice President for Academic Services, said EWC is willing to do anything it can to help the displaced workers. 

“Our initial meeting was just offering that we would be willing and would love to meet with the displaced workers and see if there is anything – from workforce to training possibilities, enrolling in a certificate or degree program – that we would be willing to meet with and work with any of those affected employees,” he said. “From career counseling to obtaining a GED, we want to be providing what services we can provide: educational services and opportunities for any of those affected workers.”

Humphries said EWC offers a variety of certification program that can be completely quickly, as well a wide range of associate’s degrees. The college would be willing to tailor classes and training to the displaced workers’ needs, he said.

“Potentially, it could be short-term training that we could provide,” he said. “They don’t necessarily enroll, but it’s a two-week course or a two-week workshop or training to do something. The first thing for us to do would be to see the career interests that they have, then for us to see as much as possible how we could make that possible.”

The college will present the displaced workers with what it can offer, Humphries said. The biggest challenge will be finding a way to help workers who need to get back to work right away. 

“Some people are going to be looking for or needing a job the next day,” he said. “The way they indicated to us, we’re looking at ages 18-70. It’s a broad age range and a broad skill set. We’re sort of assessing what we can do and what we can develop.

“A lot of it is going to be contingent on the person and what kind of things we’re able to deliver in a timely fashion. A lot of it is going to be contingent on the person and how quickly they need to get back out into the workforce.”

Perseverance

Phillips has considered furthering his education and training, but it might be impossible for him. Phillips live with his fiancé, who is disabled, and several disabled roommates – and money is tight. 

“My fiancé is disabled and she can’t work,” he said. “She doesn’t even make $1,000 a month to help out. Two of other ones work at McDonald’s with me, and they don’t really make a whole lot.”

On top of all that, Phillips said his hours at McDonald’s aren’t reliable – and he isn’t the only worker at the factory who needed the campaign work to get by. 

“At McDonald’s right now, I worked one day last week,” he said. “I worked four days this week. I work two days next week. My checks at McDonald’s are only like $200. Everybody relies on the campaign work to be able to survive.” 

Just looking around him at Western Sugar, with no IMPLAN program or no background in economics, Phillips was able to come to the same conclusion the University of Wyoming did.

“I think that’s going to really mess with the economy in Torrington,” he said. “Some of these people won’t be able to find work around here, so they’re going to have to move to a different state or different area so they can find work.”

It might get uncomfortable, Phillips said, but he’s determined to make something work because, like many of the Western Sugar employees, he doesn’t have a choice. 

“It’s going to be hard for a little bit,” he said. “I’ll persevere. Once that place closes, I’ll go find me another one.” 


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