COLUMBUS — Gena Kraenzel moved to Columbus from Nevada with her partner with one goal: working at the Sibanye Stillwater Mine.
Her partner achieved that goal three years ago and Kraenzel left a job in Billings 10 months ago when she got a job at the mine near Nye, too. Less than a year later, she was left jobless after Sibanye laid off over 100 employees on Tuesday.
“There's a lot of new people (that) quit, some probably pretty good jobs to work for Stillwater. And now here they are, without a job,” said Kraenzel on Wednesday. “I think we were probably blindsided in a way, but there was a lot of chatter about the way stuff was kind of going.”
Heather McDowell, a Sibanye Stillwater spokesperson, said Wednesday the company tried to restructure in other ways before going through with the layoffs, but market forces were too much to bear. Stillwater is North America's only producer of platinum and palladium, which are used to make jewelry, catalytic converters in vehicles and other consumer goods.
McDowell cited a major drop— roughly 50 percent since the start of the year— of palladium prices as the primary factor for the cutbacks.
“It’s been about six months that we’ve been really very, very concerned about the market,” McDowell said. “We all feel terrible. There’s definitely no good time to do it. We feel awful that it's close to the holidays and we’ve just really agonized over exactly how to do this and I think we were just hopeful that we could come up with a different solution and unfortunately, we didn’t.”
McDowell said the layoffs will take the mine down to around 1,777 employees. About 50% of the 100 employees were in their five-month probationary period and a majority were at the main Stillwater Mine. The mine has already been laying off contract miners and plans to continue reducing all but essential contract workers by the end of 2023.
“I think there’s actually only one at the East Boulder mine and then just a handful at our Met Complex here in Columbus,” McDowell said.
According to Kitco, a mining industry trade publication, the mine is looking to cut as many as 187 contract workers as well.
McDowell said that union employees with seniority may be able to return to their jobs if they bump out junior employees.
Local job services were available at the United Steelworkers Union Hall in Columbus to assist with unemployment applications and resume writing for the laid-off employees. There are multiple open positions at the East Boulder mine near Big Timber that McDowell encourages former miners to apply for.
That is not something Kraenzel is interested in, but she was trying to remain positive about what Sibanye was offering.
“They aren’t laying us off technically, so we still got our benefits or whatever until the end of the month. So, I think they’re looking out for us in a lot of ways, but I don’t know,” Kraenzel said.