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 ggraham@pressherald.com
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

LONGTIME SHIFT WORKER STARTS JOB SEARCH, REMAINS CONFIDENT


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.

"If you don't stand for something, you'll stand for anything," he said, leaning against a kitchen counter in his Saco home after returning from his last union meeting.

Bourgault was at work on Nov. 16 when he got a call from his union business agent asking if he'd be willing to fly to Philadelphia to strike at a Hostess plant there. He was on a plane five hours later with eight others to picket for a week. By then, he knew the end of Hostess was near.

"Anybody with any brains knew exactly what happened was going to happen," he said. "There was no future with these people. Even if we voted for 8 percent (pay cuts), they would have been back for more. Once you start going backwards, unless you put your foot down, you keep going backwards."

Since Hostess received final approval to close, Bourgault has filed for unemployment and started a job search, but he holds out hope that the bakery will be sold to another company.

"I'm not holding my breath that the bakery is going to open again, so you have to move forward," he said.

He spends his days looking for a job, cleaning the house and cooking dinner. Without health insurance and relying on $372 a week in unemployment benefits, Bourgault is trying to figure out how to pay for a tooth extraction and braces for his 12-year-old son Michael.

Bourgault went to an initial meeting recently at the CareerCenter, where he was given information about resources and retraining opportunities available to Army veterans. He knows the first step is learning how to apply for jobs online, but he's not computer savvy. His daughter, Shannon Smith, has had to give him a crash course in computer basics.

"He said 'Start at square one, tell me how to turn this thing on,' " Smith said.

Smith, who lives with her husband and Bourgault in a rented home in a quiet neighborhood, said it was hard to watch her father deal with his sadness and anger at the bakery's closure. But she has no doubt he'll be fine in the long run.

Bourgault is also confident he'll soon find work.

"I'm pretty much open to anything. I'll find something," he said. "I've never not worked." 

SALESMAN IS OPTIMISTIC BUT SAD TO LOSE 17 YEARS


Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

Bob Prescott was in route sales and had worked for Hostess for 17 years.

Bob Prescott thought he would retire from Hostess. At 58, he'd been working for the company for 17 years. He was in route sales, a position that required early hours -- he started his day between midnight and 3 a.m. -- but he enjoyed it. He grew to know his customers well enough to ask about their children and grandchildren.

"You're pretty much your own boss. Your responsibilities were yours," he said of his position, which required him to order and stock bread at grocery stores. "It was pretty much your own business."

Now he's at a standstill.

Prescott previously worked as a commercial fisherman and in the produce departments at Hannaford and Legion Square Market in South Portland. At Hostess, he was on commission, and was paid $59,000 a year. That was when business was good and before Hostess asked Teamsters for concessions. By the end of his time with the company, he was paid about $43,000 a year. His base pay had dropped by $100 a week and he was paying a portion of his health insurance, which had previously been provided to employees at no cost.

In the past six years, Prescott watched as sales routes were consolidated and customers turned to other companies for baked goods. With a steady stream of corporate executives coming and going and more requests for concessions from the unions, it was not hard to predict what would come next. Prescott saw the end of Hostess as a chess match: The company couldn't afford anything other than concessions, but the bakers union said no.

"It was the beginning of the end," he said. "It really wasn't a joke. The company was going to falter if they walked."

Even after the bakers walked out, Prescott said he was in denial about what that would mean for his job.

"We all thought maybe the big white knight would come riding in and save the company," he said.

But it didn't work out that way. Prescott got the call to stay home one week after the strike began.

"You're angry. You're in denial. You're sad," he said. "There's a gamut of emotions you go through. Seventeen years ... gone."

Prescott, a shop steward, said other Teamsters have told him he seems too passive about the bakery union's decision to strike. He is more concerned about the company executives who will receive a total of nearly $2 million in bonuses while the company is liquidated and its workers laid off. Now, he's focusing on finding a job and figuring out how to stretch his weekly $372 unemployment check.

Prescott and his wife, Nora, live in a modest rental home on a dead-end street in the Stroudwater section of Portland. They don't carry any debt, which he hopes will help them as he looks for a new job. His wife has been picking up as many as 16 extra hours a week working in coffee shops at Maine Medical Center so the couple can avoid dipping into their savings. For now they will go without health insurance because they can't afford to deduct any more from her paycheck.

"(My wife) has gone above and beyond. She's put in hours you can't ask of anybody," Prescott said.

Prescott spends his days navigating a digital world he has little experience with. Gone are the days when he would fill out an application, walk into a business and shake someone's hand. He now browses job listings on his laptop and submits resumes online.

"There's no personal touch," he said. "It's a whole new world for me."

Dawn Self-Cooper, acting manager of the CareerCenter in York County, said it is not unusual to see people like Prescott.

"We have many people who come in who have not looked for a job in many, many years. In the past, they've been able to walk in and introduce themselves and be offered a job," she said. "The first thing is to acknowledge things are very different today than they used to be."

Prescott is pursuing a commercial driver's license that would allow him to drive larger delivery trucks, and hoping there are enough customer service jobs out there to fill his last few years of employment.

Despite his optimism, he still finds it hard to believe he's looking for a new job at this point in his life, six years away from retirement.

"I'm in a different place," he said. "It's not the place I wanted to be." 

POSITIVE OUTLOOK CARRIES BAKER THROUGH JOB LOSS


Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer

Sue Tapley was four years from retirement when she lost her job as a mixer in the bakery.

Sue Tapley has found plenty to keep her busy in the weeks since she emptied her locker and walked out of the Hostess bakery in Biddeford for the last time.

There are Christmas parties to attend, quilting and knitting projects to keep her busy, and her "Hostess family" to keep in touch with. Decisions about what comes next will wait until after the holidays.

"I'm kind of in that limbo state trying to decide what I'm going to do," she said, sitting in her Scarborough kitchen, sipping coffee from a Hostess mug. She may retrain for a different career entirely, but she isn't ready to make that decision yet.

At 58, Tapley was four years away from retiring when she lost her job as a mixer in the bakery. She had worked at Hostess for 14 years, a job that offered the wages and benefits she needed. She previously worked for 30 years at the Clambake Seafood Restaurant in Scarborough and for five years at Konica. After working two full-time jobs for years, she was happy to land a job at Hostess, even if it meant working overnight.

"I loved my job, I absolutely loved my job," she said, particularly the relationships she developed with co-workers.

Tapley became even closer to her co-workers while they all stood on the picket line. Some people brought woks and cooked for everyone, while passersby stopped with offers to help. Union members are planning a potluck after the holidays and keep in touch through a website they set up.

"It was amazing the solidarity we had with each other," she said. "We're trying to stay close. It makes you feel a part of everything, even though you're separate from it."

Even on the picket line, Tapley hoped the company would be able to pull through.

"I think we always in our minds thought things were going to work out," she said. "It wasn't concessions we balked at, it was that they stole our pensions. If I stole that money from the company, I'd be in jail for embezzlement."

The pension issue is of particular concern for Tapley, who had planned to retire at 62.

"That doesn't leave you much time to build that back up," she said.

With her firefighter husband, Gary, out of work following an on-the-job injury, Tapley said they now have no income at all beyond her unemployment check. Her husband does not receive disability for his injury. She doesn't qualify for the maximum amount of unemployment benefits because of work missed earlier this year following surgery. The Tapleys had planned to buy a new car, but shelved it in favor of a vehicle that wouldn't require a monthly payment. Health insurance coverage through COBRA is too expensive, so they're going without, a move Tapley said is her greatest fear.

"It's just a matter of cutting back," she said. "There are luxuries we don't do anymore. So far we're all set, but my heart goes out to the ones who aren't." Tapley, who has lived in the same Pine Point home since she was 5, said her positive outlook has carried her through the stress of losing her job. She looked at job listings, but quickly saw there were few jobs available that wouldn't require retraining. She's not sure if it's worth spending two years training for a job she'd only work for a short time.

"There's not that much manufacturing in the state of Maine anymore," she said.

Yet Tapley isn't allowing herself to be discouraged. Ideally, she said, another company will buy the relatively new Biddeford bakery and put bakers like her back to work.

"In the back of your mind you're always hopeful," she said. "I'd like to get back what I lost."

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@mainetoday.com

Twitter: grahamgillian

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