OLD TOWN, Maine — When papermaking giant Georgia-Pacific closed the doors of the local mill in 2006, Alton resident Darlene Young took advantage of federal retraining funds to find another job.
“We were devastated,” she said Monday, talking about her “mill family,” which was made up of neighbors, friends and family. Young, one of 387 workers left without jobs when the Georgia-Pacific mill closed, now works as a medical assistant.
“We were all heartbroken, sick and worried about the future. ‘What are we going to do?’” she said.
Young was one of 108 millworkers who decided to learn a new trade using the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program offered after the Georgia-Pacific mill closed, according to Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Labor. Federal funds from that program have been made available to millworkers in Lincoln after a recent layoff affected about 200 workers.
An explosion at Lincoln Paper and Tissue in November that destroyed a recovery boiler and hampered the mill’s ability to make pulp is one reason about half of the employees were furloughed indefinitely, company co-owner Keith Van Scotter said in December. The company also lost a major customer to an Indonesian tissue manufacturer, which made displaced workers eligible for federal trade assistance.
“Lincoln Paper and Tissue has decided not to rebuild a boiler that exploded in November of 2013 and has shut down a major portion of the operation as a result,” Duane Lugdon, United Steelworkers union’s international representative in Maine, said Monday in an email. “There is no current prediction [about] how long the layoffs may last. It is all too fluid.”
Lugdon said he doesn’t know how many laid-off millworkers in Lincoln have accessed the retraining programs.
Young, who worked at the Old Town mill for 28 years, sympathizes with what the Lincoln millworkers are experiencing.
“I know the people in Lincoln are going through the same thing I did. I highly encourage checking into retraining,” Young said. “See if you can find your niche, like I did.”
Young said she and others laid off in Old Town decided to get retrained, but other co-workers went to work at mills in Lincoln or Bucksport. Some were later rehired when the local mill reopened as Red Shield Environmental the following year.
“This was actually my calling,” she said of her current job as a medical assistant at the Helen Hunt Health Center in Old Town. “I wanted to do it after high school but went right into the mill.”
The mill’s high wages were too attractive, said Young, who was bringing home about $800 per week when she lost her job at the mill six years ago.
After working for one employer for nearly three decades, the then-48-year-old said she was a little anxious about returning to school in 2006.
“I was nervous. I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Young said of her first day at Beal College in Bangor. “Once I got there, there were people up to 60 and down to age 19, so there was a mixture, and they made sure you got the personal attention you needed.
“I loved, I loved college,” she said, noting her schooling was paid for with federal assistance, and she was able to collect unemployment. “I had such a positive experience. I know others I worked with [at the mill] had similar experiences.”
The drawback to retraining was starting again at the bottom in a new job where the starting pay was well below the beginning wage of a millworker, she said.
“It takes a long time to get back to [the same level of pay],” Young said, adding she has not yet gotten there after six years.
Millworkers are specialists in their trade, which is why they are paid so well, Rabinowitz said.
The department is tasked with administering and monitoring the Trade Adjustment Assistance funds, and it is currently working on a program to track employment and wages of enrollees over the years.
Even without the data, “We know they start at the bottom [at a new job],” Rabinowitz said.
“They don’t stay there [at the bottom] too long because they have other experience and a good work ethic,” she said. “It’s not like an 18-year-old starting a job.”
Young said the reward of loving her job more than makes up for the cut in pay and effort of retraining.
“It’s not all about the paycheck,” she said. “I figured this was my second chance to do what I wanted to do and give back to my community. I grew up in this community and wanted to stay in the community.”
The Maine Department of Labor’s Rapid Response Team began assisting Lincoln millworkers in mid-December and is meeting individually with them to develop plans for training or job search assistance, Rabinowitz said.
Affected workers from Lincoln who want more information about pursuing another career can contact the Bangor Career Center, which serves Penobscot County, at mainecareercenter.com.