The roughly 550 employees at Verso Paper’s mill in Bucksport received a small reprieve yesterday when the company announced it would extend the mill’s closure until the end of the year.

The Memphis-based company had said in early October that it planned to close the mill by Dec. 1 because of high energy costs and falling demand for paper. However, after looking at the final production schedule and the amount of post-closure cleanup work that has to be done, the company realized Dec. 1 was an unrealistic target, said Bill Cohen, Verso’s spokesman in Bucksport.

The current plan is to end paper production Dec. 4 and then spend the rest of the year cleaning, mothballing and winterizing the mill, Cohen said, because it will be idle while Verso tries to sell it to a new operator.

Cohen said he had no information on the mill’s possible sale and that it was all being handled at corporate headquarters in Memphis.

“Are there bidders interested? Yes, but how they handle that, I’m not privy to that,” he said.

Cohen was unsure how long the cleanup will take.

“It could be two weeks. It could be three weeks. It could be 10 days, so in order to be fair to all employees, we said, ‘We need you to help close up and we’ll extend and delay the formal closure until the 31st,'” Cohen said.

Regardless of how long the cleanup takes, the roughly 550 employees will be paid through the end of the year.

“Right now the plan is to start closing up, and if we’re really speedy, folks can go home and be paid through the 31st,” Cohen said.

Being guaranteed a paycheck through the holiday season is good news for employees, said Emery Deabay, a boiler operator at the Bucksport mill and president of the largest union at the mill, United Steelworkers 1188. However, it doesn’t come as a surprise. He said the need to delay the closing had become clear a few weeks ago during the union’s negotiations with the company on the expected effects of the closure on employees.

“It’s good news that they’ll have some income until end of year,” Deabay said. “The better news would have been if they could have got their severance by state statute … but we don’t have that part yet.”

Verso’s employees are eligible for severance pay equal to a week’s wages for every year of employment at the mill, Deabay said. The union wants the company to issue the severance pay in the pay period after termination, per Maine statute. However, the company wants to stick with the contract it signed with the union, which stipulates that severance pay could be paid within three months, which means the mill workers may not receive their severance until March 2015.

Verso Paper owns three paper mills, including two in Maine and one in Michigan. Its paper products are used in media and marketing applications, including magazines, catalogs and commercial printing.

The Bucksport closure will reduce Verso’s annual production capacity for coated groundwood paper by about 350,000 tons and its specialty paper production capacity by about 55,000 tons, or about 39 percent of Verso’s output in Maine. Its Androscoggin Mill in Jay produces more than twice the amount of pulp as the mill in Bucksport, and about one-third more paper.

Verso is in the process of trying to acquire NewPage Holdings, another paper company that owns the Rumford paper mill. That deal is currently being reviewed by federal regulators.