Half of Rouse workers file for jobless benefits

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 5, 2002

[06/05/02]About half of the people working at Rouse Polymerics when a May 16 explosion rocked the plant and killed five men have filed for unemployment benefits.

Of the company’s 100 employees at the time of the May 16 fire, about 75 have at least temporarily lost their jobs because of the disaster, company president Michael Rouse said Tuesday.

Forty-nine of those had filed for unemployment benefits through the local Mississippi Employment Security Commission office, manager Benny Terrell said.

Rouse said workers who remain employed are handling duties such as fire watch, security and possibly debris removal, and he didn’t know how long it would take for others to be rehired.

Terrell said laid-off Rouse employees whose incomes were above a minimum level qualify to receive unemployment benefits. The maximum benefit to employees is $200 a week for 26 weeks, but a recently signed federal law could extend that time period by up to 13 weeks.

The remaining affected Rouse employees who have not filed for unemployment through the local office may have done so in offices in Natchez or Tallulah or already be employed elsewhere, he said.

“A number of people have found new positions,” Rouse said.

The fire injured or killed 12 of the approximately 20 men who were at work in and around Rouse Polymerics International Inc.’s production facility on U.S. 61 South at the time. Its cause is under investigation, with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the lead.

The three employees who remained hospitalized today were in good condition at Mississippi Firefighters Memorial Burn Center, spokesman Robby Scucchi said.

The fire and the fight against it also left about 12 workers laid off due to damage at Rouse’s neighboring production facility, U.S. Rubber Reclaiming Inc.

Both Rouse, in its about 60,000 square feet of production space, and U.S. Rubber, in its about 24,000, were operating in the building the fire hit, U.S. Rubber President Don LaGrone said. No injuries were reported to U.S. Rubber workers, but that company’s part of the building which represented about 40 percent of its production capacity remains inoperative, LaGrone said.

The fire swept Rouse’s part of the building, which is partitioned by a cinder-block wall. Rouse operated in all but the northwestern corner of the building, using about 70 percent of the entire building, and U.S. Rubber owns and used the rest, LaGrone said.

“This is a serious tragedy for all that have been involved, and we have sympathy for the people at Rouse and their families,” LaGrone said.

The two companies’ operations were once under the same ownership but have been owned and operated separately since 1987, LaGrone said.

One of Rouse’s products is powdered rubber, made from grinding and drying scrap rubber and used in the manufacture of tires and other products.

One of U.S. Rubber’s products is also recycled rubber and is also used mainly in tires, but comes in a form and from a process different from Rouse’s, LaGrone said. U.S. Rubber starts with old tire inner tubes and scraps of similar material and makes 1-by-10-by-42-inch slabs of rubber that it also sells as raw material, LaGrone said.

U.S. Rubber continues to operate the rest of its production capacity in its separate building many yards west of the damaged building, LaGrone said.

Electric power, turned off to U.S. Rubber’s part of the damaged building during the fire, was restored there Tuesday, LaGrone said. But, to begin with, the cinder-block wall needs to be stabilized and doing that will require much clearing of debris, he said. The debris cannot be cleared until OSHA gives its approval, he said.

“We have approval from OSHA and the city building inspector to clean out our equipment but not permission to operate,” LaGrone said. “Our people will be working on that for the next several weeks.”