LINCOLN, Maine — Clarice Murchison is a volunteer at the Lincoln Regional Food Cupboard and Resource Center who looked forward to helping others this holiday season.
But Murchison’s husband, Dwight, is among 200 Lincoln Paper and Tissue workers targeted for layoffs, so Clarice wonders whether her family might soon need food from the cupboard.
“He was a boiler operator, which is in the area that blew up, and they shut that completely down, so he is out of a job,” Murchison said Thursday as she tended to the pantry’s West Broadway storefront. “They are not going to rebuild the boiler, and that’s what he’s known all his life.”
“It puts a lot of emotional stress on people,” she added. “[You wonder] what am I going to do now? What am I going to give up? What am I going to keep? You know, when you have worked your whole life for it. I was very upset because my husband, he only had a couple more years, and where do all the old timers get a job at [age] 61?”
United Steelworkers union officials who met at Mattanawcook Academy with several hundred workers and the Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Team on Thursday estimated that as many as 40 workers could take an early retirement offer. Generated during layoff negotiations earlier this week, the offer effectively could save 40 younger workers from layoffs.
The company and union have been meeting since Monday to develop the retirement deal and a severance package for workers, said Roger Zelkan, president of United Steelworkers Local 396. He declined to divulge settlement details.
Mill co-owner Keith Van Scotter announced earlier this month that an explosion of a recovery boiler at the mill on Nov. 2 forced the indefinite but not permanent layoffs. He and other company officials have said they will not seek to replace the boiler, a key element to the papermaking components of their mill, until market conditions improve. Such boilers can cost as much as $100 million to replace.
The mill’s three tissue machines continue to run, company workers have said.
In a petition the company filed on Dec. 16 with the U.S. Department of Labor seeking job retraining and employment services for the 200 affected workers, company officials also disclosed that the loss of a tissue contract to an Indonesian firm caused the job loss. The petition did not mention the explosion. It cited Thursday as the day when the last of the layoffs would occur.
Zelkan said the the contract loss “forced them [mill managers] to do what they did. It takes orders off the machines. If you lose a lot of the orders, you are lost,” he said.
“There is some expansion in domestic tissue market, 1 or 2 percent annually, but the problem with that is that once people see that they can make money making tissue, they jump into that market,” said Duane Lugdon, United Steelworkers’ international representative in Maine.
The layoffs are expected to have a powerful impact on the Lincoln Lakes region. Until the layffs, Lincoln Paper was the region’s largest single employer, with 400 workers.
Some workers might transition to new jobs quickly, if they are willing to move south and take training. Huhtamaki, a specialty packaging company, had applications offered at the meeting for as many as 40 jobs in Waterville making disposable tableware.
David Ireland, owner of Dave Ireland Builders LLC of Howland, sought 50 to 75 workers. His company will be among 70 contractors installing natural gas burners in the Kennebec Valley for Summit Natural Gas, paying $20 to $22 per hour, Ireland said.
For workers in need of immediate aid, Lincoln’s town government offers a home heating assistance program and the town supports the Lincoln Regional Food Cupboard and Resource Center, Town Council Chairman Steve Clay said.
As of Oct. 31, the program had $12,400, Town Clerk Shelly Crosby said Thursday. Anyone interested in donating and any Lincoln resident interested in applying for aid should contact the town office at 794-3372. Checks can be mailed to Town of Lincoln, 63 Main St., Lincoln, 04457, care of heat and fuel assistance donation program, Crosby said.
Lugdon encouraged donations to the town’s food cupboard. Cupboard workers have established two accounts for food and home heating donations at Lincoln Maine Federal Credit Union, 171 West Broadway, Lincoln 04457. Donors should mark on their checks whether the donation is intended for food or fuel relief, Lugdon said.
“Every dollar they [workers] can save can pay their mortgages or their other obligations,” Lugdon said. “They are trying to stretch their dollars. When you don’t have a job, that’s what we have to do.”
Other charity efforts are under way. Lincoln Fire Department union members donated dozens of toys to the displaced workers’ families. Dwight and Clarice Murchison’s daughter Nicole created a Facebook page called Lincoln Used Toy Swap to collect donations for laid-off workers’ children. Several dozen new to slightly used toys have been donated so far, Nicole Murchison said.
“People from all around are truly stepping up and are extremely generous,” Murchison said. “It’s all about helping those in need that got the bad news of the layoff close to Christmas.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story requires correction. Seventy, not seven, contractors will be installing natural gas burners in the Kennebec Valley for Summit Natural Gas.