December 22, 2012

After Hostess, a new world

The newly jobless in their 50s are striving to move forward while hoping for the best.

By Gillian Graham
Staff Writer

When Hostess closed its doors last month, the 370 employees at its Biddeford bakery found themselves in the unenviable position of having to hunt for new jobs during the holiday season. 

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For many of the people who baked and delivered bread, chocolate cupcakes and Sno Balls, that means stretching unemployment checks, struggling to pay medical bills and navigating retraining opportunities and online job applications.

The closing of Hostess came a week into a national strike by bakery union employees upset with the company over wages and pensions. Hostess got final bankruptcy court approval Nov. 21 to close 33 bakeries, putting 15,000 employees nationwide out of work, including 500 in Maine. Another 3,200 will be unemployed nationally after the company is finished closing next year.

Employees in Biddeford included bakers union workers and Teamsters. The closure has left the employees – many just a few years away from retirement – wondering how to make ends meet and figure out how to do what they haven’t had to do in years: Look for a job. This is the first in an occasional series


Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Michael Bourgault worked for Hostess for 16 years in a variety of positions.

Michael Bourgault says he isn't looking for sympathy.

He may be out of a job without any immediate prospects, but he's quick to point out he's in a better position than many of his fellow union members.

"I'm not worried about me," he said. "I know people who will lose their houses and cars. But the way that company was headed, they were going to lose their homes and cars anyway."

Bourgault, 54, had worked at Hostess in a variety of positions for 16 years, most recently as a scaler and mixer, measuring out ingredients and mixing dough for bread and rolls. His shifts started as early as 3:30 a.m. and he logged an average of 55 hours a week for 13 years. A single father with two children, he'd long been used to working whatever hours were necessary to make ends meet.

At one point, Bourgault made $16.56 an hour and his health insurance was paid by the company. In 2004, concessions carved 11 cents off his hourly wage. His final paycheck from Hostess reflected another 8 percent cut, bringing the hourly wage down to $15.23. But the decreases don't tell the whole story, he said. By the end, he was paying $75 a week for health insurance.

And then there were the pensions. Hostess stopped contributing to its union pension plans more than a year ago. Bourgault said contributions deducted from paychecks were never applied to the pension plans, leaving employees wondering if the company was stealing from them.

Hostess executives, however, focused on the pay cuts when discussing the company's demise in the media, Bourgault said. He grew tired of hearing about the 8 percent pay cut, which Hostess imposed on the union with court approval. He's angered by comments that blame union workers and accuse them of forcing the company to shut down.

"We would have took the 8 percent. The 8 percent was nothing," he said. "The pension and the health insurance were the major players."

Bourgault, who describes himself as a "union Republican," was fed up with the company and ready to strike long before the union voted to do so.

(Continued on page 2)

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