MILLINOCKET, Maine — A year ago, Tom Picard said that a series of layoffs — 10 in all since he began work in 1980 — had made life as a millworker tough.
The “new normal,” as he described his living situation, involved commuting 125 miles to Waterville, where he would punch in and work four days at the Huhtamaki mill. In a good week, he would get a full day of overtime, and he would work an extra two hours each day to account for more extra pay that would help him rent a bedroom in a house in Winslow.
Picard has worked in mills for most of his adult life, but as the papermaking industry has struggled, and mills have shut down, he has had to scramble to remain in a mill and utilize his pipe-fitting and welding skills.
During a follow-up interview last month, Picard said that the he has come to expect his “new normal” life to keep getting tougher.
And over the past year, since the Bangor Daily News first shared his story, it certainly has.
“Right after you did the story, basically, the company shut down all of the overtime,” Picard said. “So I wasn’t going in [early] at 5 o’clock in the morning anymore. I was reduced to a 40-hour work week.”
And the hits just kept coming.
“And right after the story was in the paper, my wife and I decided to get divorced. The divorce was final on Aug. 31,” Picard said.
And in November, his finances took another blow.
“I blew the engine in my car, going home. Up in Bangor, I lost the timing chain. It broke and took the engine. So I’m borrowing my mother’s car right now to commute,” Picard said. “So that’s been a little dilemma … so, it’s been a difficult year. But it’s nothing that I ain’t been through before, [like] when I was working at Great Northern and the mill went bankrupt the day after Christmas. [That year] they shut her down and a week later my first wife asked for a divorce.”
During the interview, which took place in early December, Picard said he wasn’t looking forward to the holidays this year.
And his reason made sense: December hasn’t been the most festive month for him over the years.
“The holidays are definitely a hard time for me,” he said. “As I told you before, my father passed on Christmas Day — it’ll be 30 years this Christmas — and December has always been a bad month for layoffs, and that’s always in the back of my mind.”
Picard said that over the years, he has been laid off from jobs on Dec. 10, Dec. 24, Dec. 27 and Dec. 31.
On Thursday, he reported that this year, there was no such layoff, and he was grateful for that.
Picard said his commuting lifestyle played a part in his divorce in August, and he and his ex-wife, Tammy Shorey, still are friends.
“[After arriving back in Millinocket after working all week] your weekend flies right by because you’re working and working to play catch-up [on home chores],” Picard said. “So now, the next thing you know, it’s Sunday afternoon and you’re packing your car up and you’re leaving home and traveling back down the road to go to work.”
Picard said that took a toll on the couple’s relationship.
“There was no ‘us’ time. There’s no time for us to do things together,” he said. “That definitely had strained my marriage, and it’s straining a lot of marriages [for couples with a commuting spouse].”
Picard has been commuting to Waterville for two and a half years now, and despite the hardship, he said he doesn’t second-guess his decision to do so.
“I don’t regret it, but it’s survival mode,’” Picard said. “If there was a job up there [in Millinocket] that was $12 or $13 [an hour], I would have taken it, and I would have stayed there.”
Picard now lives in what he calls “my little bachelor house,” which he already owned before the divorce. In order to move into it, he had to evict his tenant, though. It’s not ideal, but it’ll do, for now.
“You’ve just got to constantly roll with the changes and try to keep a positive attitude, keep a smile on your face,” Picard said. “I’ll tell you, it’s not easy. It’s difficult. I ain’t gonna lie to you.”
Picard said giving up is the only other choice, and that’s not an option at all.
“What can you do? What can you do?” he asked. “You’ve got to survive. You’ve got to keep living. You can’t just throw in the towel. You’ve just got to keep on doing what you do.”
And that, Picard still will tell you, is “the new normal.”