The federal government has approved special unemployment benefits for the more than 200 former employees of Great Northern Paper’s East Millinocket paper mill who were laid off in early February when the company shuttered the mill.

The U.S. Department of Labor on May 27 approved about 225 former millworkers for Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program that provides assistance to workers who have lost their jobs due to foreign competition. The available assistance includes job retraining services, help with job searches and relocation, and a temporary wage subsidy for workers over the age of 50.

Duane Lugdon, a representative of the United Steelworkers union, said the federal assistance is a welcome benefit for the former millworkers, but he said everyone still hopes the mill can reopen.

“These jobs were lost effectively because there is foreign competition that has diminished the market,” he said Tuesday. “Obviously we’d like to see that reversed, but it hasn’t happened yet and people need to make preparations for the rest of their lives if it’s not going to happen.”

Cate Street Capital, which manages Great Northern Paper, stopped production at the East Millinocket mill on Jan. 23 citing burdensome costs for energy and wood. A few weeks later it laid off 212 of the mill’s 252 employees. The company has said it is still trying to find a way to reopen the mill, which produces newsprint and paper for book publishing. It has continued to employ a skeleton crew to keep the mill ready for a quick restart.

Lugdon said he’s received no new information on the potential restart.

“They’re still trying to work through the business plan and put a viable business plan together,” Lugdon said. “We haven’t heard anything that provides a greater reason for despair today than there was in January.”

Judy Pelletier, a program manager at the Maine Department of Labor, submitted the application for the Trade Adjustment Assistance on April 18. In the application, she wrote that foreign competition was to blame for the mill closure, the main requirement for program eligibility.

“Workers were laid off due to the loss of sales contracts to Canadian, Chinese and Finland companies. High imports of like products also lead to the decline in prices of similar products,” she wrote.

Those eligible for the federal job assistance include about 25 contract workers from Security Services USA Inc. and Kelly Services that worked at the East Millinocket mill, according to the filing.

While the federal government has approved Trade Adjustment Assistance for the former millworkers, they still need to apply to the Maine Department of Labor to receive the benefits. The state labor department is holding three informational meetings on Thursday, at 8:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m., for the eligible employees. The meetings will be held at the Katahdin Region Higher Education Center in East Millinocket.

The Trade Adjustment Assistance program has been around for more than 25 years, Pelletier said. The program is administered by labor agencies in each state, but the funding comes from the federal government. In 2012, the Maine Department of Labor received $6.7 million to administer the program, according to the federal labor department.

Whit Richardson can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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Twitter: @whit_richardson