Jane and Sonny Bates sit on their side-by-side wooden rockers overlooking their serene back yard every day at 3 a.m., a time when most are still sound asleep. 

They'll while away the hours before the sun comes up talking about their future plans as they sip their coffee. Or they'll discuss the projects they want to complete on their home. They spent one recent morning kneeling in their front garden bed, planting flowers by the dim light of their truck so as not to disturb the neighbors.

Usually by 8 a.m. they would’ve long since left their Zachary home to operate machinery in the fine paper converting department at Georgia Pacific. They’d be thinking about what to pick up for supper before returning to the secluded home they lovingly worked on until it was their forever home. They would be in bed by 8 p.m. before the next early-morning wake-up.

A lot has changed for the couple in the month since they were laid off from the Port Hudson paper mill amid a 650-job reduction at the site, but their sleep schedule has been a particularly hard habit to break.

"We get more done before the sun comes up than most people get done in a day," Sonny said, laughing.

Jane had worked at the mill for 19 years. Her husband Sonny was there for nine.

“Everybody who worked there suspected it was coming so it wasn’t a surprise but it was a shock,” Jane said of the January layoff announcement. “I felt like I was going to get the five more years I needed to retire, age-wise, social-security-wise. We went into work that morning and we had no clue.”

Similar stories are playing out in hundreds of homes across not only Zachary but the Baton Rouge metro area as employees, families, teachers, businesses and seemingly untouched community members navigate through a city’s changing identity.

The mill has long been a touchstone in Zachary. It was where most of the schools’ young men would go when they graduated high school. It was where dad came home from after long days working at the mill. And it held the prize float in local parades at which the kids waved.

With the company's decision to leave the paper communication business entirely, the rolling layoffs of 650 employees at the Port Hudson site began. It will continue operating in the city but at a much smaller capacity, producing only toilet tissue and paper towels.

Zachary Mayor David Amrhein remembers the natural shuffle of graduates from his own high school class of 40 years ago into the mill. A cohort of those guys who’ve been at the site ever since then were just laid off in this recent round of cuts, and most employees of that age are choosing retirement over a new career.

Amrhein said he sees his city as resilient, and one that has established itself as safe from crime, with good schools, and close enough to Baton Rouge and other factory-type facilities to support a workforce that commutes. 

“If this would’ve happened to Zachary 20, 25 years ago it would’ve been devastating,” he said. “But we’ve become so diverse now.”

A negative impact hasn’t been felt so far in the way of property or sales taxes coming from GP itself, he said, and there haven’t been any planned subdivisions or business openings that have halted in response.

“The plants around here are expanding, Exxon had a big hire, Dow did, so if you’re ever going to get laid off and have a plant closure now is probably a good time,” Amrhein said.

Still in such early days, impacts on housing, jobs, economy and schools are still largely unknown, but are nearing the surface.

The Bank of Zachary commissioned an impact study through the LSU AgCenter immediately after the layoffs were announced in January to analyze the impact of payroll losses on overall spending, and the indirect or multiplier effects on wages and salaries, total jobs, and the GDP.

The results of that study are nearing completion and are tentatively scheduled to be released to the public during a presentation June 11, according to Bank of Zachary President/CEO Mark Marionneaux.

“It is our hope that this information will aid our public officials, small business owners, individual families and the community as a whole in their decision-making process as they navigate some uncertain times,” he said in a statement Friday.

And uncertain times they are, particularly for families like the Bates’. Jane and Sonny, 56 and 62, respectively, met a decade ago on an online dating site.

Sonny would end up moving from Jackson, Mississippi, taking a temporary job at a nearby factory. It took him about a year to get on with Georgia Pacific in the same department as Jane, and a few years after that navigating overlapping schedules before the company aligned them and they could do the five-mile commute to and from the mill together.

Over the next nine years, saw fewer and fewer locals on site as employees increasingly commuted from Gonzales, Plaquemine or even Mississippi. It stopped being the kind of homely place where everybody knew everybody, where coworker meal trains were organized to show support for grieving families or new parents, they said. That cultural shift in part sparked the changing identity of the town's mill that they say would culminate in layoffs years down the line.

Both Jane and Sonny were given the opportunity to work in another department rather than being laid off, but chose to leave and stop delaying what they felt was the inevitability of being out of work. Now they are navigating the too-old-to-start-over and too-young-to-fully-retire stage of life.

They know they're lucky not to have little mouths to feed or new cars to pay off, but their hope of working five more years into a comfortable retirement is diminished. And with health issues but no insurance, there are tough choices to be made.

Jane, a trucker by trade before she started with GP, is looking for a job in a bank, seeing the layoff as a chance to work somewhere she’d always wanted instead of a male-dominated industry she fell into through the family business.

Sonny is hoping for part-time work that will allow him semi-retirement, but both are still handing out resumes and doing phone interviews after a month out of work, unwilling to uproot from the Zachary-Baker area where they’d always pictured seeing out their retirement.

They won't take their regular annual vacations, reap the benefits of the solar panels they fortunately installed a few years back, and will keep perspective on what they gained instead of lost.

“I raised three kids, I bought three houses, they allowed me to live a comfortable lifestyle and give my children a comfortable lifestyle so I don’t harbor any hard feelings,” Jane said. “Do I wish I could’ve gotten five more years out of them? Heck yeah, who wouldn’t? But a lot of people left there bitter and there’s no reason to, it’s life.”

There are worries, the same ones they assume most of their former coworkers share, about a lapse in health insurance, paying the bills and what their city will look like in a few months, or years.

But with a patio, coffee, early mornings and each other, they're getting by.

“You can’t be bitter at everything, just take it as it comes,” Sonny said. “We’ve got each other and that’s enough for me.”


Follow Emma Kennedy on Twitter, @byemmakennedy.