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Kennecott offers mine workers early retirement

Paul Foy, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- A Utah mining company is offering a $20,000 early retirement bonus to reduce layoffs it says will be made necessary by a landslide that damaged an ore pit west of Salt Lake City.

Kennecott Utah Copper Corp. is giving 270 qualified workers until June 1 to accept or reject the bonus and take a pension and health insurance benefits, company spokesman Kyle Bennett said Thursday.

The company hasn't put a number on the layoffs it said will follow that date, but has halved its production goal for 2013 at the Bingham Canyon mine.

It's expected to take months, if not years, for the major U.S. copper mine to recover from a slide that loosened enough material to nearly fill the Panama Canal — rock and dirt without ore value that needs to be moved out of the way.

The slide tore loose April 10, nearly filling the bottom of the pit. Kennecott was able to resume production only because it had staged some haul trucks inside the pit beforehand. The trucks are marooned inside the pit, working around landslide debris to feed an underground conveyer belt with ore.

Kennecott will wait until June 1 "before we take any additional measures" to reduce a workforce of 2,100, Bennett said Thursday. "Certainly, the more people that take this, the more flexibility it gives us, and it reduces the number of folks we have to reduce later."

Union officials were not optimistic many workers in their 50s would accept a retirement package.

"It's a good incentive if you were planning on retirement anyway — but not enough to pull out two or three years before you plan to retire," said Brandon Dew, business agent for Operating Engineers Local 3.

The union represents about 200 shovel operators and bulldozer drivers at the mine.

Kennecott said it may have to let some salaried employees go, too. No layoffs have taken place, and it wasn't clear when they might start.

Eligible union workers may not be feeling pressure to take early retirement because they have enough seniority to avoid layoffs, said Wayne Holland, a United Steelworkers representative who represents more than 400 drivers, rock drillers and smelter and refinery workers.

Terms of early retirement depend on a worker's age and length of service.