Laid-off railway workers grim in wake of Lac-Megantic disaster

Laid off workers from the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway receive unemployment counseling at the Penquis building in Dover-Foxcroft Wednesday morning.
Laid off workers from the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway receive unemployment counseling at the Penquis building in Dover-Foxcroft Wednesday morning.
Posted July 24, 2013, at 12:52 p.m.
Last modified July 24, 2013, at 7:37 p.m.
Laid off Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway locomotive engineer David Stupakewicz, 51, reviews paperwork with Margaret Henry of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board at the Bangor Career Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Laid off Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway locomotive engineer David Stupakewicz, 51, reviews paperwork with Margaret Henry of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board at the Bangor Career Center on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Buy Photo
Margaret Henry of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board counsels unemployed rail workers at the Penquis building in Dover-Foxcroft on Wednesday, July 24, 2013.
Margaret Henry of the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board counsels unemployed rail workers at the Penquis building in Dover-Foxcroft on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Buy Photo

BANGOR, Maine — David Stupakewicz hopes to land a job with a paper mill or maybe hook on with another railroad company now that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway has laid him off, he said Wednesday.

A locomotive electrician, Stupakewicz is among 79 company workers, and 60 Americans, who lost their jobs in the wake of the runaway train disaster in Quebec that killed 50 people on July 6. It’s the second layoff from Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway for the 51-year-old Guilford man.

“It will be rough, but compared to the tragedy in Lac-Megantic, what I am going through is nothing,” Stupakewicz said after attending unemployment counseling at the Bangor Career Center on Wednesday. “Every time a train runs through that town, the tragedy is what they will be thinking of, for a long time.”

Railway company officials told the workers they will begin rehiring in a month, but not many of them believe it, said Margaret Henry, district manager for the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board, the agency that will pay the workers’ unemployment benefits.

“They are hearing two to four weeks, but they are skeptical and think that it will be much longer,” Henry said Wednesday. “I am hearing distrust. I am hearing fear and perhaps some anger and worry.”

Twenty-three workers sought unemployment counseling with the Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response team at Penquis in Dover-Foxcroft on Wednesday morning. Another dozen laid-off Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway and associated company workers were counseled at the career center that afternoon, said Judy Pelletier, manager of the Rapid Response Program.

The laid-off workers were polite but grim. All who were approached during the session at Penquis declined to be interviewed. Several declined to be photographed. Two said that having their names published would kill their chances of being rehired anywhere.

“What do you expect us to say? [Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway] is going under, and we want a job,” said one worker who declined to be identified. “They won’t tell us that, but we know what is going on.”

Company President Robert Grindrod said he has been advised not to comment on the matter.

The runaway Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway train derailed in Lac-Megantic on July 6, igniting several of its 72 tanker cars carrying crude oil from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick.

Company officials have said an engineer might have failed to set enough manual brakes on the train so that it rolled out of control after local firefighters turned off the locomotive, releasing its air-brake system, when they doused a fire onboard.

The tragedy has forced the railway to lay off 79 of its 179 workers, including 19 Canadians, closed a major track into Quebec and spurred rail safety reviews on both sides of the border and two lawsuits from victims.

The layoffs occurred on July 15. Grindrod said the workers would be temporarily unemployed because of the “drastic drop in business” caused by the closure of the tracks through Lac-Megantic.

The railroad workers “are nervous,” Pelletier said. “They’re anxious [about whether] this will be only a temporary layoff.”

Should Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway seek bankruptcy protection or fold, unemployed workers might find work soon after. State transportation officials have said that the federal Surface Transportation Board would appoint another rail service to act as trustee to run the railway.

The railroad’s status as a monopoly, and the impact upon Maine businesses that rely upon the railway if it ceased operations, would require the Surface Transportation Board to keep the line operating, officials said.

Henry, who counsels unemployed railway workers regularly as part of her job, said the layoffs have hit the workers and their towns especially hard because Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway is a small railroad service within a small community that relies on it heavily.

The impact, she said, “is huge.”

All but a few of the workers probably will qualify for unemployment benefits, said Pelletier, who has heard that two or three haven’t worked for the company or in Maine long enough to qualify.

Having the workers in a group filling out unemployment application forms will speed their ability to get benefits, Henry said. Pelletier encouraged railway workers to call 888-457-8883 to make appointments at any of Maine’s 23 career centers.

The layoffs went beyond Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, as Stacey Connor, a 34-year-old office worker from Dedham, worked at Logistics Management Service, a company that did warehousing work for the railway until the disaster.

She doubted that Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway would recover.

“Look what happened. Honestly, I think that’s a tough thing for anybody to come back from,” Connor said. “There are a lot of people there [in her area] who are employed by [Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway]. I think it’s going to be extremely difficult for everyone.”

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