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Laid off Ferndale smelter worker fights through plant closure, pandemic

Ferndale’s Alcoa-Intalco aluminum smelter closed permanently in July 2020.

FERNDALE, Wash. — A Northwest city is dealing with two massive economic blows right now: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of one of its main employers. Last summer, Ferndale’s Alcoa-Intalco aluminum plant closed forever, taking hundreds of jobs with it. 

“It was a big part of this town,” said Paul Shuey. “It’s gonna be a big hit to everyone." He is among those left without work by the smelter’s closing.

Shuey now spends his days looking for a new job, something he never thought he’d have to do again.

“I was hoping that would be my last job I ever worked out there,” Shuey said. 

He worked at the smelter for 14 years, a job that allowed the husband and father of five to raise a family and live his part of the American dream.

It was a good life.

“After getting that job, I was able to buy a house, meet the needs we needed, feel financially secure and not have to worry about money,” Shuey said.

For years though, Ferndale’s relationship with the plant was strained.

With the volatile aluminum market, it seemed every few years, there were rumors of Alcoa shutting the plant down. 

Last summer, with aluminum prices tanking, the unthinkable happened.

After 56 years in operation, the last smelter west of the Mississippi River closed forever – taking 700 good-paying jobs with it – and leaving people like Shuey feeling empty and broken.

For all intents and purposes, the smelter is permanently closed. However, a company spokesman left the door open saying the location has been curtailed and a small crew maintains the smelting infrastructure and related equipment, providing "optionality for the future."

RELATED: Up to 700 more workers losing jobs at Alcoa aluminum plant in Ferndale

“The hardest part is not feeling useful,” he said, choking back tears. “You feel like you’re just a burden."

Six months have passed since the closure, and Shuey is still out of work. He’s been able to hang on because of a generous severance package from management.

The family is fortunate that Shuey’s wife gets health care benefits from her job at Fred Meyer. But they can’t hold on much longer.

They’re burning through their savings and good, family-wage jobs are tough to come by, especially in the midst of a pandemic. Shuey said he has looked for work at 40 to 50 employers without a single call back.

“I was the main source of income for my family,” he said. “It makes it really hard.”

Like many, Shuey is now forced to count every dollar. He hates to see the impact on his friends and neighbors, struggling to survive themselves.

“We’re making sure we’re not spending our money on frivolous things like eating out,” he said. “We can’t afford to go out and support the local economy like we want to because we’re hurting, too.”

But like Ferndale, Shuey is tough and resilient: a working-class guy in a working-class town that will not be defeated.

“I just can’t give up,” he said. “My family is depending on me. I gotta work hard to keep going forward.”