September 22, 2013

Maine mills’ decline coincides with spike on disability rolls

Former papermakers are part of a national shift: using the program for long-term unemployment relief.

By MICHAEL A. FLETCHER The Washington Post

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DISABILITY
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The Great Northern Paper plant in East Millinocket continues to operate, but at a greatly diminished capacity compared to the Maine paper industry’s heyday. Some of the job losses have contributed to a rise in disability claims in the area.

Photos for The Washington Post by Carl D. Walsh

DISABILITY
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Eugene LaPorte worked at the Great Northern mill in East Millinocket for 38 years before being laid off in 2011. Since then, LaPorte, who has a number of health issues, has been among an increasing number of disability recipients.

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But with that program also on increasingly shaky financial ground as baby boomers retire, it remains to be seen how lawmakers contend with the looming shortfall.

FORMERLY 'LIVING THE DREAM'

The explosive growth of the disability rolls represents a new reality for Millinocket, a town that had been synonymous with blue-collar prosperity since the Great Northern Paper Co. opened the largest paper mill in the world here in 1900.

The company built a second mill in East Millinocket in 1906 and, before long, Millinocket was known as "the magic city" because of its seemingly miraculous expansion.

The good times were still rolling when Eugene LaPorte graduated from high school in 1973. He went straight to work in the mill, and for years it looked like a great move: LaPorte became a supervisor, and at his peak, he had close to a six-figure salary.

"Who needed a college education?" LaPorte said. "I was living the dream."

But that was before the company's fortunes changed. In 1990, Great Northern was purchased in a hostile takeover and later went into bankruptcy. Most recently, a private equity firm, Cate Street Capital, has been struggling to revive its operation.

The vast majority of workers were let go. Once, the company employed 4,500 workers. Now, the count is down to about 400, according to local job-training officials.

LaPorte, 58, lasted until 2011. By then, he was battling a series of heart ailments, including a heart attack that struck while he was at work on Christmas Eve 2009. He also had asthma and diabetes.

Other laid-off workers have gone over to the Eastern Maine Development Corp., the local job-training center, where they have learned the skills to work as technicians or nurses or in other jobs.

"People have to find a niche," said Jon Farley, director of economic and workforce development at the job training center.

LaPorte wanted to return to the only job he knew. But he had no luck getting back in. He suspects that had a lot to do with his medical history. Finally, his wife, who runs a small trophy business, hit him with a dose of reality.

"They think you're disabled," she told him. "Why don't you put in for it?"

At first, he resisted. But, he noted, he knows a "lot of people who have applied." Finally, LaPorte filed for disability and, given his long list of chronic ailments, he was approved unusually quickly -- in a matter of months.

HARD-TO-PROVE IMPAIRMENTS

When President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Social Security disability program into law in 1956, it was envisioned as a safety net for people ages 50 to 64 who could not continue working because of long-term medical problems.

The age criterion has since been broadened. Applicants are subjected to a detailed process in which Social Security examiners, administrative law judges and sometimes the federal courts pore over their medical records to evaluate their claims.

But many of the judgments are ultimately subjective: More than half of awards go to applicants who claim musculoskeletal disorders or mental impairments that are often hard to document conclusively.

The number of people on the disability rolls has been growing rapidly even though workers report being ever healthier in surveys. They are also less likely than ever to have physically demanding jobs.

The nation's aging population explains part of the increase. As workers age, they are more likely to develop physical or mental impairments. Maine, for example, has one of the nation's oldest populations and has long been among the national leaders in the proportion of working-age people receiving disability.

The growth in the number of women in the workforce -- which expanded the number of people covered by the program -- is also seen as a factor in disability's expansion. Changes in program eligibility in 1984 made it easier to qualify for the program with maladies such as pain and depression.

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Additional Photos

DISABILITY
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The paper mill in Millinocket, which opened in 1900, now sits closed as the private equity firm Cate Street Capital tries to revive its operation. Great Northern at one time employed 4,500 workers in the area. Now it is down to about 400 employees working at the mill in East Millinocket.

  


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