"We will be looking at roles across the operation," Kennecott spokesman Kyle Bennett said Friday, adding that he knows nothing more than what the company told union officials Thursday. A still undetermined number of employees will be laid off some time this month because the collapse of the northeast section of the 4,000-foot-deep open-pit mine will cut expected 2013 ore production in half.
"Obviously there will be an impact," Bennett said.
Anxiety among the 1,800 unionized workers is high, say officials with the United Steelworkers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Operating Engineers and Machinists. Many, perhaps even most, have never been laid off by Kennecott before. And the jobs they've had for years pay well. Salaries between $50,000 and $60,000 a year are common. Some go as high as $80,000, officials say.
"Everybody is wondering, how deep will these layoffs go, and how will it affect their families?" said Brandon Dew, business agent for the Operating Engineers Local No. 3, with 200 members at the mine.
"People have been asking me, 'What's going on? What's the latest you've heard?' People are starting to get concerned. These will be the first layoffs for many of them. They are not used to this," said Scott Mullins, president of United Steelworkers Local No. 392. With 1,200 members, the Steelworkers is the biggest labor union at Bingham Canyon.
No time is opportune for layoffs, but the coming furloughs will happen when Utah's economy is humming. The unemployment rate in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties is less than 5 percent; Tooele County's jobless rate is 5.4 percent, according to the state Department of Workforce Services. Even more important than low unemployment is the rate at which jobs are being created. In March, the number of jobs in Utah was up 4 percent compared with the same month last year well above the long-term average of 3.1 percent.
"It's always better to be laid off in the springtime and summer than in the winter in Utah, especially if you are a heavy equipment operator. It's easier to pick up construction-type jobs," Mullins said.
Big projects such as the Interstate 15 highway widening project in Utah County and the Mountain View Corridor construction in Salt Lake County are finished, but new-home construction, stagnant for almost five years, has picked up. Ivory Homes, the largest builder of single-family homes and apartments in Utah, is looking at labor shortages, Chief Executive Clark Ivory said.
"The market contracted so much that many of the subcontractors and suppliers got out of the market, and as things grow substantially, not only for us, but for the entire [Wasatch Front] market, we are seeing a labor shortage in many areas," Ivory said.
"We would hope that members of our union would be able to find work pretty quickly," said Dew, with the Operating Engineers. "I do believe that's possible. The economy is picking up. Winter has passed [and] we believe there are good opportunities out there."
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local No. 354 business manager Rich Kingery said as many as half of his 40 members at the mine could be laid off. But construction activity in the area is strong enough that the union should be able to find jobs for any licensed electrician "in a fairly reasonable amount of time."
Wayne Holland, international staff representative for the Steelworkers, said Kennecott will push to bring the mine back to full production as soon as possible. Right now, copper prices are good. Gold and silver prices are at near-record highs, and demand for molybdenum is good, he said.
Still, there is sure to be a lot of pain among many workers whose skills may not be so easily transferred to other jobs. "For many people, it will be hard," Holland said.
Anticipating that, the Department of Workforce Services plans to move a rapid response team into position when the extent of the layoffs is known, spokesman Nic Dunn said.
"We are ready to deploy our ... team to help educate these individuals about all the options and resources available to them, as well as assist them in a new job search," Dunn said. "That rapid response deployment will include information about how to use our online job exchange, how to utilize our employment centers, how to receive Unemployment Insurance should they need it, and many other resources in training, re-training, and job searching," he said.
A look at Kennecott's workforce
Roughly 2,100 people work at Salt Lake County's 25th-largest employer. Most workers belong to four unions.
United Steelworkers • 1,200
Operating Engineers • 200
Machinists • 190
Electrical Workers • 40