Mediation between Hostess Brands Inc. and the bakers’ union Tuesday could complicate Biddeford bakery employees’ efforts to apply for state unemployment benefits, according to the Maine Department of Labor.

Representatives from the Bakery, Confectionary, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union agreed to meet in private mediation with company representatives Tuesday at the urging of a bankruptcy judge in New York.

Bakers’ union members will not be eligible for Maine unemployment benefits until union officials call off the strike, which, given the mediation, is technically ongoing, said Julie Rabinowitz, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Labor. A little-known part of state labor law enacted in 1997 prohibits workers from collecting unemployment benefits for the time they are on strike.

The liquidation hearing is to resume Wednesday in New York if the mediation talks yield no agreement, The Associated Press reported.

Despite the last-minute talks, many former Hostess Brands Inc. employees have been advised to apply now for state help.

“As standard Department of Labor policy, we encourage everyone who believes they’re entitled to unemployment to apply,” Rabinowitz said.

Earlier on Monday, Maine labor officials rendered a preliminary decision to bar workers from collecting benefits for the first week of their picket.

Hours later, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert Drain denied Hostess’ bid to liquidate its assets.

Had the company been allowed to liquidate Monday, bakery workers would no longer be on strike and could collect unemployment. Members of the Teamsters, which did not strike but did honor the bakery workers’ picket lines, are already eligible.

Alan Ray Churchill, vice president for Teamsters Local No. 340, which represented about 120 employees in Biddeford, said little is likely to come of mediation. The Teamsters union had been at odds with the bakery workers over the decision to strike.

“Once the product comes off the shelf, its over,” Churchill said. “Even if they fire (ovens) back up they’ve lost so many customers they wouldn’t be able to survive.”

As negotiators continue to meet, Maine officials will shepherd Hostess employees through benefit applications. Two sessions are slated Tuesday with bakery workers, while Teamsters met with the state’s team Monday.

Mike Castaneda, a benefits coach who was deployed to an Augusta career center to discuss employment options with about a dozen displaced Teamsters, said although the job market is tough, applicants should stay positive and remain diligent in their search.

“It really depends on attitude,” Castaneda said, himself a former worker at a now-shuttered paper mill in Livermore Falls. “If they really want to go out there and they have the right credentials in place, they can do it.”

Churchill, who attended Monday’s two-hour presentation, echoed the anger of his members at the financial collapse of Hostess.

“The jobs they’re going to get won’t have fully paid health care,” he said. “The wages will be lower. The average wage for our members is $1,000 a week. They’re not going to walk out of here and find that.”

Jerry Gould said the last time he looked for work was 1983.

“This was an excellent job to go get,” said Gould, who is less than a year from retirement. “I never expected this would happen in my lifetime.”

Gould said said it’s “scarier than hell” to apply against people decades his junior. “I’m 59 years old,” he said. “Who’s going to hire me?”

Alan Burns, who was shop steward for the Teamsters in Augusta, said he was angry that he had no input in the decision to close Hostess and at the bakers’ union.

“Whether it was mismanagement from the top, we’re still here,” said Burns, 54. “I had no say-so. They took us down with ‘em.”

 

Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com