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A wood chip truck heads to Georgia-Pacific's Port Hudson paper mill in January. The company will lay off nearly 700 people as it shuts down office paper operations at the mill due to declining demand. About 300 people will continue to work at the mill, producing toilet tissue and paper towels for retail purchase.

The first wave of about 270 workers at Georgia-Pacific's paper mill north of Baton Rouge were laid off Tuesday, as the company begins a weekslong decommissioning process that will see more than 600 leaving their jobs. 

Decommissioning at the Port Hudson mill has begun, said Georgia-Pacific spokesman Kelly Ferguson, and many of the plant's machines have been shut down. About 50 workers are expected to stay on temporarily to dismantle the portions of the plant that are closing for good. 

Most of the remaining employees, many of which have worked at the mill for years, will leave the plant in the coming weeks, with the largest wave happening Tuesday. Ferguson said 50 to 55 salaried employees will exit Friday, and another large wave of hourly workers will leave in mid-April. 

Georgia-Pacific, which is owned by Koch Industries and is based in Atlanta, announced in January it was shutting down a major division of the mill. The move is expected to affect roughly 650 local workers, and the firm has said another 40 business and sales jobs are being eliminated in Atlanta. 

The company is closing down its office paper machines, converting assets, woodyard, pulp mill and most of its energy-generating complex in Port Hudson, off U.S. 61 north of Baker. The decision comes as Georgia-Pacific leaves the paper communications business entirely. 

Union representatives at the plant negotiated a severance package for the workers being affected. Kendall Gerald, president of the United Steelworkers Local 1334, said the package is an "industry standard" one. Gerald, like some others at the mill, are staying on permanently to work at the mill producing toilet tissue and paper towels, divisions that will remain open and employ about 300 workers.

Laid-off maintenance workers are having an easier time finding jobs at industrial sites across the region, Gerald said. Those on the production side have skills that are harder to transfer to another type of work. And those that do find work are often taking a pay cut. 

"You got to start at the bottom. Their pay rate starts back at the bottom of the ladder, and they got to work your way all the way up again," he said. "It's a sad situation, but it is what it is." 

LSU economist estimates paper mill shutdown will lead to loss of nearly 2,800 jobs in ripple effect

Gerald estimates about 100 of the affected workers will take their severance and retire. The rest have been seeking jobs at plants throughout the region. 

Hood Container of Louisiana, a paper mill in St. Francisville, picked up a few, Gerald said, and some have found work with larger manufacturers or small contracting firms.

ExxonMobil said Tuesday that it is preparing for several hiring classes and received applications from or made direct connections with many G-P employees and anticipates  hiring several throughout 2019. The company has contact with Georgia-Pacific’s human resources office to learn about available applicants, extended its job application periods and worked with some primary contractors to encourage their consideration of Georgia-Pacific employees.

Georgia-Pacific was the first of three companies to announce they were shutting down Zachary-area plants and laying off workers in January. BASF said it would shut down a specialty chemical plant, affecting 54 workers, and Thompson Pipe Group said it would close its manufacturing plant where 120 work. 

Pipe plant that employs 120 in Zachary to close later this year, consolidate with Texas operations

The Georgia-Pacific layoffs alone are expected to ripple through the economy and could lead to 2,150 other lost jobs across the state, according to an LSU study. 

The Baton Rouge Area Chamber has said there is still high demand locally for trained manufacturing workers, and more than 100 employers signed up to participate in a February job fair for the paper mill's workers.

Follow Sam Karlin on Twitter, @samkarlin.