JAY — Curtis Brooks, who has twice lost his job at Maine paper mills that have closed or downsized, has some advice for those facing layoffs when the Androscoggin mill is due to close next year.
The 41-year-old from Jay lost his job when the Wausau Paper Otis Mill on the Jay/Livermore Falls route was downsized in December 2008 and closed in 2009. He joined Verso Corp., the former owner of Androscoggin Mill, and by the time it downsized in 2016, he was out of a job again.
He worked as a correctional officer in a prison before being hired by Nine Dragons Paper Holdings in Rumford in 2017.
“I cut my teeth on pulp and paper at the Otis mill,” Brooks said. “When you come from the town of Jay, you’re sort of born into it.”
He said he thinks anyone who watched the other mills in Lincoln, Bucksport and Millinockett close thought they might have a better chance of surviving with fewer mills.
“When it happens to you, you’re almost in shock,” he said. “It baffles everyone in a way. You make these announcements and you still have to go to work. It hurts. You feel almost helpless.”
After the shock, workers go to meetings where they are briefed on severance pay and the order in which machines will be shut down and departments closed.
“You hope your department is the last to retire because you would still pull a paycheck before you have to start your life over,” he said. “Once the shock wears off, you look at the options available.”
This is the situation facing approximately 230 employees as Pennsylvania-based Pixelle Specialty Solutions prepares to close the Androscoggin mill in the first quarter of 2023. The laid-off workers will receive severance packages, plant spokesman Alan Ulman wrote in an email on Wednesday.
It’s the first mill Pixelle has closed, he said.
Brooks said he believes that as the Jay plant has been downsized in recent years, some employees thought, “Is this the beginning of the end?” and “It was almost inevitable that this mill would close.”
In the coming months, the Maine Department of Labor will work closely with plant leadership to ensure that every employee has access to unemployment insurance and medical insurance, receives job training and job search assistance through Maine’s CareerCenter and JobLink, and access to other essential services , spokesman Dillon Murray wrote in an email on Wednesday.
When Brooks was fired from Verso, Sappi Mill in Skowhegan and Rumford Mill opened their doors to try to help those from Verso, he said.
“You start building seniority, you make friends,” Brooks said. “You spend 12 hours at home and 12 hours at work.
“It’s hard when you have to go somewhere else. It’s tough when you have seniority and you have to start over. You don’t have vacation time and you have to think about where you stand. It’s tough. The sense of belonging is lost.”
He worked in the wood department at Verso, which was physical work, and is at the Nine Dragons pulp mill in Rumford, where everything is computerized.
“They run things off screens, although there’s a physical side too,” Brooks said.
When he lost his job for the second time, he considered whether he should serve his time at another mill.
“My wife[Michelle]somehow convinced me to interview at ND,” he said. “I have a job.”
When fired, he was surprised to find that 150 employees combined had over 2,000 years of papermaking experience.
“Don’t get discouraged,” he advised those who were about to lose their jobs. “There are a lot of great, well-paying jobs out there. Don’t be afraid to try something out of the ordinary, outside of your comfort zone. It’s never too late to try something different. You have to go out and leave after work.”
Brooks, a firefighter with the Jay Fire Rescue Department for 20 years, said he and Fire Rescue Chief Mike Booker spoke for a few minutes Tuesday after the announcement.
“I think the big question is what’s going to happen with property taxes, property valuations and municipal budgets,” Brooks said.
As he stopped by the Rumford Mill on Wednesday morning, Brooks said to himself, “I’m damn lucky.”
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